Review: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Patrick Weekes

Review: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Patrick WeekesDragon Age: Tevinter Nights by Patrick Weekes, John Epler, Brianne Battye, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Sylvia Feketekuty
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, sword and sorcery
Pages: 496
Published by Tor Books on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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An anthology of original stories based on the dark fantasy, role-playing video game series from Bioware.

Ancient horrors. Marauding invaders. Powerful mages. And a world that refuses to stay fixed.

Welcome to Thedas.

From the stoic Grey Wardens to the otherworldly Mortalitasi necromancers, from the proud Dalish elves to the underhanded Antivan Crow assassins, Dragon Age is filled with monsters, magic, and memorable characters making their way through dangerous world whose only constant is change.

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights brings you fifteen tales of adventure, featuring faces new and old, including:

"Three Trees to Midnight" by Patrick Weekes
"Down Among the Dead Men" by Sylvia Feketekuty
"The Horror of Hormak" by John Epler
"Callback" by Lukas Kristjanson
"Luck in the Gardens" by Sylvia Feketekuty
"Hunger" by Brianne Battye
"Murder by Death Mages" by Caitlin Sullivan Kelly
"The Streets of Minrathous" by Brianne Battye
"The Wigmaker" by Courtney Woods
"Genitivi Dies in the End" by Lukas Kristjanson
"Herold Had the Plan" by Ryan Cormier
"An Old Crow's Old Tricks" by Arone Le Bray
"Eight Little Talons" by Courtney Woods
"Half Up Front" by John Epler
"Dread Wolf Take You" by Patrick Weekes

My Review:

If this is your jam, if Dragon Age is your jam, then Tevinter Nights is the jammiest jam that ever jammed. But I have to say upfront that if you’re not already into Thedas, this collection is not the place to get there. The place to begin is the awesome, absorbing videogame Dragon Age Origins, which premiered in 2009 and has, so far, spawned two sequels, the under regarded, boringly named but eminently playable Dragon Age II, and the later Dragon Age Inquisition. Those of us who love the series and replay it endlessly are now in year 6 of waiting for Dragon Age 4, which looks like it’s going to be titled The Dread Wolf Rises and not rise in real life until 2022 at the earliest.

I’m not sure whether the Tevinter Nights collection is designed as a teaser, as a hint of things to come, or just to drive us even crazier waiting. Whatever the case, for fans the collection is a terrific way of seeing parts of Thedas we have heard of but not seen much of – at least not yet – catch a few glimpses of beloved characters, and just generally have a good time in a place we’ve come to know and love.

And the stories themselves, well, if you’re familiar with where they’re coming from, the collection is a rollicking good time. Maybe not all of the stories are quite worthy of a Tethras (Hard in Hightown) but a good time is certainly had by all, especially if you’re also into the sword and sorcery school of fantasy, because that’s where this collection mostly falls. With a couple of toe dips into the very dark fantasy edges of horror.

Dragging myself back from the squeeing to talk about the stories themselves, as I said, they are all pretty much playing in the sword and sorcery end of the fantasy pond, so there are lots of assassins, lots of dastardly plots and LOTS of murders. Then again, several of the stories feature the Antivan Crows, and assassination is their business.

The story I found to be the absolute most fun was Down Among the Dead Men by Sylvia Feketekuty. While part of that fun was that it is set in Nevarra, a place we haven’t been, and in the Grand Necropolis, under the purview of Nevarra’s Mortalitasi, the mages who maintain the Crypts and their dead and demonic denizens of whom we’ve heard much but not met many.

On the surface this story reads like a dungeon crawl into a dungeon full of creepy, crawly undead monsters, but it subverts itself in the end. The “I see dead people” is expected, the “I be dead people” is rather a shock for our guardsman hero. That he achieves his lifelong dream of becoming a librarian as a dead person turns the gallows humor into a smile.

The two stories that edge the closest to outright horror are the aptly named The Horror of Hormak by John Epler and The Wigmaker by Courtney Woods. While their portraits of previously unseen parts of Thedas are fascinating, it’s the evils faced by the protagonists that make both of these stories sing their creepy songs. It wouldn’t have taken much for either of these stories to be just plain horror in any setting, but Thedas gives both of them a bit of extra gruesome spice. That The Wigmaker can also be read as a scathing commentary on the real-life fashion industry just adds to the chills it engenders.

The two stories that dealt most directly with characters that fans are familiar with from the series are Callback and Genitivi Dies in the End, both by Lukas Kristjanson. Both of his stories rely on readers’ knowledge of the series, and both take that knowledge and use it to tell stories that pull the reader right back into this beloved world while telling new stories with old friends. Callback is a particularly poignant post-Inquisition story, while the story around Genitivi, while “enhanced” by knowing the character and the world, is actually a well-done version of an often told type of story, one about storytellers and storytelling and the way that so-called history can be embellished – or not – as the tale-teller decides. Or as the tale-teller requires in order to get out of town with a whole skin.

Last, but not least, the one that sent chills up my spine not for its creepy or horrific elements but for the way that it continues the post-Inquisition story by giving us a view of exactly what the Dread Wolf has been up to since the end of Dragon Age Inquisition. The final end of the Trespasser DLC when he announced that he planned to essentially destroy the world in order to save his own people and correct the wrong he committed Ages ago. He’s just as proud, self-deluded and self-serving as ever, and just as hot and just as cold, all at the same time. I can’t help but hope that his original name might be prophetic in some way. And that this time “Pride” will go before a very big fall. He certainly has the hubris for it.

We’ll see. Eventually. In 2022 or 2023. Not nearly soon enough. But if you love epic fantasy of the somewhat grimdark persuasion, enjoy experiencing a story through videogaming, and have not yet had the pleasure of going to Thedas, you have plenty of time to work your way through the entire series before The Dread Wolf Rises.

If you have already fallen in love with Thedas as I have, we have these stories to tease us and tide us over.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this collection. Fans will love this collection. Everyone else will wonder what the fuss is about. But for those of us who already know what the fuss is about, Tevinter Nights is a very fun read.

Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa

Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz FurukawaDragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa
Format: eARC, hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel
Pages: 232
Published by Dark Horse Books on December 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Journey to the world of Thedas in these canonical comics from BioWare and Dark Horse!

Tessa and Marius are mercenary partners who eliminate those using magic to hurt others. When they betray a powerful patron intending to kill them, they're forced to flee and join the Inquisition. Later, they're taken captive during a mission and it's up to an unwitting agent to rescue them: elven squire Vaea, who's just arrived in Kirkwall for a lavish party thrown by Varric Tethras. A talented thief, Vaea takes on an easy side job . . . but when she chooses to change the terms of the deal mid-heist, she is entangled in this dangerous recovery mission that is surely above her pay grade.

Featuring work by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, and Fernando Heinz Furukawa, this oversized hardcover edition collects Dragon Age: Magekiller #1-#5 and Dragon Age: Knight Errant #1-#5 and features creator commentary and behind-the-scenes material!

My Review:

I just started a new play-through of the whole Dragon Age saga, which made this a perfect time to review this. The title is a rather unhelpful mouthful of not very informative. What this big little volume is is a hardcover compilation of two Dragon Age graphic stories, Magekiller and Knight Errant.

I knew I was going to get to this eventually – I even picked up an eARC from Edelweiss. But in the end, I bowed to the inevitable and purchased the hardcover. While graphic novels CAN be read on my iPad, that doesn’t mean they SHOULD be read on my iPad – unless I’m really desperate and away from home. The hardcover is large and awkward – but fun reading at the table.

The interesting thing about the two stories in this book is that they both take place in the interstices of the plot of Dragon Age Inquisition. This means three things:

  1. These stories only make sense if you are already a fan of the video game series
  2. They feel/read like short stories that just so happen to be illustrated. I’m not saying that the graphics aren’t terrific – because they are – but both of these stories would work equally well as short stories without the lovely, additional graphics.
  3. The stories are canonical – nothing in them conflicts with the game story canon. A fan can imagine them taking place around the edges of the game(s) actually played. These events happened while your Inquisitor was somewhere else being, as Varric Tethras might say, “all Inquisitorial”.

The first story begins a bit before the game starts, with a pair of mercenary magekillers (hence the title) who have been coerced into killing known cult members before the cult manages to murder the Divine and kick off the whole thing. They find themselves working for the Inquisition, alongside many of the other side characters in the story.

What’s fun about Magekiller is that the male/female mercenary partners are work partners without being romantic partners – nor is there a will they/won’t they vibe to the story. It was pretty neat that the romantic pairing in the story turns out to be between the female mercenary and one of the Inquisition’s better known spies. Who is also female.

That the hero of Magekiller has a very similar vibe to one of my (and many people’s) favorite characters in Dragon Age II is icing on a surprisingly tasty cake.

Knight Errant also feels like it has some callbacks to Dragon Age II, as well as to the game that started it all, Dragon Age Origins – which I’m playing again now.

But the story is all about the power of stories. There’s a quote from Varric Tethras, the author of Hard in Hightown and the premiere storyteller in the series: “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.”

Varric writes fiction, but he also fictionalizes the heroic deeds of his friends – including himself as a secondary character. It’s a practice that causes him no end of trouble, and makes him an interesting but extremely unreliable narrator.

In Knight Errant, Varric is a secondary character in someone else’s unreliable narration – and he’s more than willing to play along. But under this seemingly simple tale about a has-been knight who travels the world on the strength of the stories he tells about himself, there’s a lot to unpack about why we tell the stories we tell, and how much of ourselves we invest in those stories.

And if you don’t finish this story hearing the original cast of Hamilton singing “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” you weren’t paying attention.

Escape Rating B: If you’re a fan, this collection is a lot of fun. Possibly even more fun than Hard in Hightown. There are a ton of in jokes scattered throughout both stories, and we get a chance to see a different bit of this world and different facets of characters we have come to know and love.

There are also some informative annotations from the creators on the process of both the story and the graphics.

While I can’t think that anyone else would be interested, for those of us who are working through our hundredth play-through of the series and trying to keep from chewing our nails waiting for Dragon Age 4 (which probably won’t be out until 2021 at the earliest!) it’s a fun way to pass some time in Thedas.

Review: Hard in Hightown by Varric Tethras with Mary Kirby

Review: Hard in Hightown by Varric Tethras with Mary KirbyHard in Hightown by Varric Tethras, Mary Kirby, Stefano Martino, Álvaro Sarraseca, Andrés Ponce, Ricardo German Ponce Torres, E.M. Gist
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel, mystery
Pages: 96
Published by Dark Horse Books on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Prolific dwarven author and heroic companion of the Dragon Age games, Varric Tethras brings us the collected edition of his breakthrough crime-noir drama, Hard in Hightown (with help from his trusted human confidante, Mary Kirby)! This volume is beautifully illustrated by Stefano Martino, Alvaro Sarraseca, Andres Ponce, and Ricardo German Ponce Torres, with a painted cover by E.M. Gist!

Twenty years of patrols have chiseled each and every stone of the Kirkwall streets into city guardsmen Donnen Brennokovic. Weary and weathered, Donnen is paired with a recruit so green he might as well have leaves growing out of his armor. When the mismatched pair discover a dead magistrate bleeding out on the flagstones, they're caught up in a clash between a shadowy organization known only as the Executors and a secretive group of Chantry agents--all over some ancient artifact.

This is a prose novel featuring 24 black and white full page images.

My Review:

This book seems like it’s kind of a joke. Admittedly an in-joke for people who love the Dragon Age games, of which I am certainly one.

But it also sorta/kinda isn’t a joke. Like many stories that are part of long-running series, it’s also a visit with old friends. Both of the slightly disguised and not-so-slightly disguised variety. After having a book epically fail this week, I needed something that was sort of a joke and definitely a visit with some old and dear friends.

That this was the first thing I ordered sent to the new house that has arrived so far was kind of icing on the cake. It was meant to be.

On the one hand, this story is pretty much steeped in the Dragon Age universe. Varric Tethras, the “author” of the book, has quite the reputation as an author within the series. When asked about his writing, his response rings true for the real world as well as his fictional world, “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.”

Hard in Hightown is one of his most popular. It’s also a lot of fun, mixing fairly standard genre tropes into what feels like a fully realized fantasy setting. It’s the story of a guardsman nearing retirement who falls headfirst into one last big case. A man with a reputation for breaking the rules in order to get things done, Donnen doggedly follows the sparse clues from person to person, place to place and ambush to ambush.

The path takes him through punishment, betrayal and ultimately a reward that is better than money. Or at least he hopes it will be.

And it’s the kind of tale that would easily fit into one of the old shared world series like Thieves’ World or Liavek. It also sounds like the kind of case, and in the kind of place, that Sam Vimes used to tackle in Ankh-Morpork before he married into the nobility.

In other words, Hard in Hightown is a mystery set in a fantasy universe. Reading it brought back a lot of fond memories, both of the game and of the fantasy mysteries it strongly resembles.

And it was a load of fun from beginning to end, at least for this fan. I’m not sure it would work for anyone who did not have at least a passing familiarity with Dragon Age, particularly Dragon Age II. Admittedly, I’m not sure why anyone who wasn’t already a fan would pick this up in the first place, except as a joke.

But Varric was every bit as much fun a storyteller as he is as a character. Reading this made me nostalgic. I think another playthrough of the series is on my horizon – at least as soon as we dig out from the worst of the moving debris.

Escape Rating B: I was looking for a palate-cleanser of a book, something to wash the taste of a complete failure out of my mouth. So I switched from a book that managed to make what should have been an exciting story into a dull recitation, and turned to a writer I knew could make falling down the stairs into an epic tale. And I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.

Happy Halloween: L.A. Theatre Works Dracula

For my own personal Halloween Treat, I listened to the L.A. Theatre Works dramatization of the one, the only, the original, prince of the night, Count Dracula.

This L.A. Theatre Works dramatization is a full-cast adaptation of the Bram Stoker classic Victorian horror story, Dracula. It’s absolutely perfect for anyone’s holiday listening pleasure, complete with chills and thrills.

We all know the story, or we think we do. And it doesn’t matter. Hearing the story, with each part portrayed by an excellent actor, as was done in this production, makes the entire story fresh and new. You feel Jonathan Harker’s terror as he watches helplessly when the Count’s boxes of earth are packed and shipped to England. You share in Dr. Seward’s and Lord Godalming’s surprise, disgust and ultimate belief when Dr. Van Helsing proves to them that Lucy Westenra has, in fact, become a vampire. All while hearing only the actors’ voices.

The quest to solve the mystery, destroy Dracula, and save Mina, all while scouring London, and then trekking through half of eastern Europe, is painted through voices that can’t help but etch themselves in your mind.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a classic for a reason. Listen to this production and you will have an absolutely marvelous time remembering the reasons why.

A few personal comments about listening to the recording. If you can download this, do it. The download is currently $3.95, that’s 4 bucks. The CD is $17. Talk about a holiday treat for downloading!

Second comment, this initially caught my attention because of the voice actors. David Selby plays Van Helsing, Simon Templeman voices Dracula. I would have bought it for those two names alone. I used to run, not walk, home from school to watch the original Dark Shadows. Climbing into the “Way Back Machine”, David Selby played Quentin Collins, the werewolf member of that rather unusual family. Hearing his voice again brought back a lot of memories.

Returning to the present, I play a lot of role-playing video games, in what I refer to with some irony as my “copious free time”, mostly because said free time doesn’t exist. For the past two years, my video game of choice has been Dragon Age Origins and its sequels and DLCs. In Dragon Age, Simon Templeman is the voice of Loghain Mac Tir, an extremely compelling character who has listened to the darker side of his nature. Actually not unlike Dracula in some ways. Without the blood-drinking. Loghain had a henchman for that.

And in case it wasn’t totally obvious, Escape Rating A+.