Since I'm so excited about the (still months away) release of Dragon Age, I decided to pick up David Gaider's prequel novel The Stolen Throne to see what I could see. As much as I'd love to be nice to Mr. Gaider, it's not very good.
That's not to say it's terrible--for game-related fiction it's actually fairly superior, but this is only because most franchise-related fiction is quite bad. I say this as a writer of gaming-related fiction, namely those reams and reams of game writeups that I doubt anyone else will ever read. Most fiction that falls into this category is simply too self-conscious to be good because the purpose isn't to tell a story but to set up or make use of another story. You can see this problem even in other fiction, like Lian Hearn's prequel Heaven's Net Is Wide to her Tales of the Otori series. When you're trying to write a background instead of a novel, it becomes very difficult to tell what you should leave out and what you should leave in, with the result that the narration often completely overtakes the dramatization and your book reads like a chronicle, not a novel.
From a style standpoint, this is the worst problem with David Gaider's book, as well. The plot is pretty straightforward. A young man, Maric, finds himself as head of the rebels in the kingdom of Ferelden after his mother, Queen Moira, is betrayed and killed. He acquires several friends along the way who aid him in regaining his throne: Loghain the ex-bandit, an amoral pragmatist, his promised future wife Rowan, and Katriel the treacherous elven bard.
Gaider has a good grasp of their characters, conflicts, and complex interactions. That's the best part of the novel, although sometimes it can be difficult to tell whose perspective Gaider is using to tell the story--he will sometimes seemingly switch mid-paragraph without any definite sign that he's done so. This makes a lot of the internal mental comments about other characters seem like descriptions out of the *author's* mouth, which they may in fact be. In either case, I consider this a stylistic mistake. An author should *never* offer his or her opinion about the events of the story in so obvious a fashion as giving an outright evaluation of a character or situation. (It's all right to put that evaluation into the mouth of a character, on the other hand.) The story should lead the reader into making that evaluation themselves. This is a vital part of the "show, don't tell" principle.
The other area where Gaider has serious problems is in characterizing the villains. Their motivations and actions are utterly one-dimensional with pat rationales--Severan the mage is "ambitious", for instance, while Meghren the usurper is a petulant hedonist who could have been pulled, whole, from any work featuring a corrupt ruler. If you've ever seen Disney's "Robin Hood" movie (you know, the one with the anthropomorphic animals and featuring this song), Meghren is IDENTICAL to Prince John.
I suspect that writers who rely very heavily on their sense of life often have this problem. If they have a benevolent-ish sense of life, they find it terribly difficult to write interesting, complex, or even real-seeming villains. If they have a malevolent-ish sense of life, their villains are often incredible beyond belief, but their heroes are wooden dolts. If they're in the middle, their heavily conflicted characters are the best, while both full heroes and full villains are kind of unreal.
There's no theme to speak of other than the most general sort of "good vs. evil" action-movie theme. There are some heavy-handed attempts toward the end to introduce a bit of ideology along the lines that a degree of ruthlessness is necessary in the pursuit of justice, but it doesn't gel with any other events. If anything, it contradicts most of the rest of the story and represents a lead-in to the game.
The plotting is competent, but it's so overloaded with narration that it doesn't come across as dramatic. Just when you're starting to get into the story there will be a ten-page retelling covering three years of vague perambulations doing things like hiding from the Usurper's armies and trying to gather support. There's also an unfortunate "setting tour" interlude or two where Gaider seems to remember that the Dragon Age game is going to contain a lot of elements that don't really pertain directly to this single struggle, so he wedges them in any old how.
As a novel, the Stolen Throne is extremely uninspired, but if you're as excited as I am about the game you may enjoy picking it up as an introduction or sneak peek.
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