Despite being barely further in Dragon Age: Inquisition than I was when I wrote my last article, I felt it would have been strange to end the month with a post about another series. Instead of the video games, though, today I’m going to talk about one of the books. Indeed, many people may not even be aware that there are Dragon Age books. As of now, there are four—with various receptions from the fanbase—and I’ve only read one. The first one: The Stolen Throne. Always hungry for more information on the DA universe, I leapt at the chance to read this firsthand account of the events that lead up to the Battle of River Dane and how the groundwork was laid for the eventual liberation of Ferelden from Orlais. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book provided an interesting, compelling adventure through areas familiar from the first game (Dragon Age: Origins) while providing fantastic character arcs, but the more I thought on it, the more obvious it became that this novel, both early in the DA universe timeline and the franchise’s life, reflected some problematic elements present in Origins, and to an extent, the other two Dragon Age games.
Spoilers under the cut.
The Stolen Throne starts with a death. Notably, the death of Ferelden’s rebel queen Moira Theirin, struck down by Ferelden nobles conspiring with Orlais. Her son, Maric, escapes into the Wilds (a deep, maze-like forest which is home to barbarians and mages) only to be taken in by a band of outlaws. Luckily for the prince, these outlaws are the good “serve the people” rebel-y kind of outlaws and he isn’t ransomed for his life. It’s here he meets Loghain Mac Tir, better known as Teyrn Loghain, and here their friendship starts and is tested. No matter how much the two don’t like each other, however, they are bound together by a common cause: the Ferelden rebellion and getting revenge on Orlais.
With Orlais looking for Maric so intently, the kingdom eventually hits their mark by sending an elven spy named Katriel after him. While posing as a servant, she manages to get into the prince’s trusting graces by leaking information about an attack which they then repel. However, she betrays them and leads the two boys and Rowan Guerrin, daughter of one of the nobility and member of the Ferelden rebels (and Maric’s betrothed), into another battle. A battle which ends up wiping out a majority of the rebel forces. With the four of them—Katriel, Maric, Loghain, and Rowan—now separated from the other rebels, Katriel takes this chance to do her job and kill Maric by leading them into the Deep Roads. Yet this too backfires when they manage to not only find their way out of the baddie-infested labyrinth, but they end up gaining the reinforcement of one of the most skilled and esteemed dwarven warrior groups. When the group returns to the other rebels, they find that the Orlesian nobility have all but lost whatever footholds they had in Ferelden, and are finally being pushed back. With the stand at River Dane, the rebels make a glorious push against the Orlesian occupation and reclaim some of their land. A glorious ending for all involved.
It turns out that one of the aspects that I like about this book also magnifies one of its huge downfalls, and that’s its use of women in the plot. Not characterization: both of our main ladies, Rowan and Katriel, are great. They’re both extremely capable warriors, both clever in different ways, and both deserving of so much more than they got. Even the love… trapezoid? Rhombus? The love mess that everyone gets involved in isn’t portrayed in a way where the girls are fighting over the boys. In fact, it’s the girls that basically say “fuck this, I have shit I need to do” while Maric and Loghain are busy being jealous of each other. It’s still an unnecessary subplot and made me roll my eyes, but not nearly as hard as I would have otherwise. However, because The Stolen Throne is told through the thoughts and actions of Maric and Loghain, the readers don’t get a chance to see things from the ladies’ perspective. And honestly, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with this if the narrative of the two boys didn’t reduce Katriel and Rowan down to their looks so often. For every phrase lauding them for their courage or cunning, we get four on how beautiful they are. Wow, they’re pretty. Even covered in spider guts, they’re just so radiant and beautiful. Okay, we get it. By repeating the state of their physical beauty so often, it only serves to end up downplaying the rest of the feats they accomplish—as if none of this would matter if they weren’t beautiful.
Yet the largest offense here is how the two heroes, Maric and Loghain, reach the end of their character arcs. Compared to the women, who while being downplayed by the two boys still managed to have character arcs about growing as a person, both Loghain and Maric’s arcs seemed to be completely influenced by women, to mildly sexist effect. Their character arcs come off as about how women bring nothing but trouble into their lives, shown explicitly through their relationships to Katriel and Rowan. Maric believes he is in love with an elven servant which makes him complain about his being a prince beyond his arranged marriage with Rowan. Additionally his trusting nature is only tested against Katriel’s lies. This reaches its apex when he finally discovers she’s a spy and kills her, becoming disillusioned in the process. All the while Loghain’s friendship with Maric is repeatedly tested because he can’t get over the fact that Maric and Rowan are technically betrothed, despite them not really being compatible. Eventually he learns to be “selfless” by letting Rowan and Maric get married so the kingdom can have rulers and stability once more. While the conflicts are believable, especially for boys who are barely out of their teenage years, the fact that their entire character development hinges on growing beyond the need for women in their lives (as if they were some sort of burden) does all the characters a disservice. Not to mention that the conflict here should be coming more from the actual, bloody conflict rather than someone getting upset because their crush isn’t going to date them. Maric and Loghain’s growth should have relied less on their romance arcs and using the ladies, their friends, as props for this problem to fester. You’re in the middle of a war, guys.
In addition to this, despite Ferelden being a rather eclectic area, the entire book was extremely white and straight. Perhaps the latter is understandable since The Stolen Throne, at its core, is a war story which isn’t going to delve too much into anyone’s personal lives or romantic preferences, but the lack of any people of color is a problem that has persisted from the series’s beginning. While Ferelden and Orlais both may be predominantly white, there is no excuse to have no other forms of representation. Would it really have been so bad to have Rowan or Cailan be Black or olive-skinned? Even Katriel, a respected Orlesian spy, could have been not white and blonde. From my experience, the Dragon Age universe, while plagued by racial injustice due to species, is not plagued by racial injustice due to skin color—to blatantly ignore this type of representation reeks of not entirely thinking the universe through as well as holding the internalized prejudice of white people as the norm. I can only hope that the later books break from this unfortunate precedent.
While these shortcomings cannot, and should not, be ignored, the action itself is extremely enthralling, and the political intrigue was enough to catch my interest—although admittedly, it’s not political thriller by any means. If you’re looking for a supplement to the Dragon Age universe or simply looking for an entertaining fantasy story, I recommend picking this up. If you’re looking for inclusive fantasy, however, I’d recommend some of the other books we’ve reviewed instead.