Author: David Gaider
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Version: Mass Market Paperback
Page Count: 485
Publisher: Tor Books
Add To-Read on: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: Written by openly-gay man who was a head writer of the Dragon Age games
Recommended Readers: Dragon Age fans wanting to read some sweet, sweet lore
CAWPILE Rating: 9.57
Star Rating: ★★★★★
Picture this: I’m in my third, back-to-back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I learn that my son, Cole, has a book that’s all about his backstory. Naturally, I had to find and read it as soon as possible.
While I’ve vaguely known that Dragon Age books existed, I hadn’t picked up any until now because, historically, books written to supplement a video game franchise are often lackluster comparatively. It can be hard to capture all the things that make a video game wondrous through text alone, without you there as the player character that makes all the decisions and ultimately saves the day. So imagine my delighted surprise when I read Asunder, only to find that I didn’t just like it; I devoured it.
Perhaps the book’s only major fault, which doesn’t apply to me, is that it’s not incredibly accessible to those who haven’t played the Dragon Age games. If you have, however, then it’s like falling back into the world of Thedas all over again. Asunder‘s primary setting is in the country of Orlais at the White Spire, which houses one of the many Circles of Magi. As this takes place after the Kirkwall rebellion, tensions between mages and templars have never been more taut, and now mysterious murders are taking place behind the Spire’s walls. When a mage named Rhys is pinned for the murders, he’ll do anything to clear his name, including venture out on a dangerous mission that will uncover knowledge that could change the fate of mages forever.
I’d heard Cole deliver his account of these events in DA:I, and luckily, it was a bare bones account because I was still surprised at many happenings that took place throughout Asunder. That is, of course, a testament to David Gaider’s writing, which balanced dialogue, character voice, description, plot, and pacing in a near-perfect fashion. The only minor flaw that I noticed were a couple of repetitive phrases like “sweat sliding down the face/brow” to indicate nervousness or strain. Aside from that, I loved how Gaider told this story and the regard he gave to every single character on the page, whether it was in their point of view or not.
This makes sense, given that Gaider was one of the lead writers of the games and is responsible for writing some of my favorite characters, such as Zevran, Morrigan, Fenris, and Alistair. Sometimes, this talent won’t translate to writing a full-blown novel, but this time, it did. All the new characters were wonderful to read, both as they all interacted with each other and as their own people: Ser Evangeline with her struggle of doing right yet performing her duty as a templar; Rhys with his sense of humor and compassion but his fears about his own fate along with that of his fellow mages; bold and brash Adrian; and the cold and harsh Lord Seeker Lambert. Returning characters were also a joy to experience, such as Leliana, Wynne, and Cole.
I really do have to single out Wynne for a moment. I felt like I had just gotten to know her in Dragon Age: Origins before the game was over, so having her as a major character in Asunder did wonders. (And, no, I haven’t played Dragon Age: Awakening yet, please forgive me.) Throwing her in a book with characters who all have strong opinions and personalities was also a great way to show off her own strengths and faults as well as how she’s changed since DA:O. I got incredibly emo about Wynne before it was all said and done.
Then, there’s Cole, my sweet boy, my shining star, my everything. He broke my heart and made me so proud, and that’s how you know he’s my Cole. Even though his dialogue is written slightly different in Asunder—closer to his more lucid moments than his alliterative, rambling ways in DA:I—I heard his voice come through loud and clear. And it made sense, in a way, given he did not fully realize his own nature in Asunder. Gaider played out Cole’s mystery, his tragedy, and his actualization beautifully. His character journey in Asunder transfers easily into DA:I, where he still has plenty of growing to do based on the decisions you help him make. Therefore, I couldn’t be happier with the justice Gaider did Cole’s character.
Even though the book only takes place in Orlais, the world-building is as rich and expansive as you would expect from Dragon Age. As you read, you experience the still rippling effects of the Kirkwall rebellion; witness politics and posturing in Val Royeaux and the Grand Cathedral; and watch the beginnings of the Orlesian Civil War unfold between Empress Celene and her cousin, Grand Duke Gaspard.
While the swells of history surround our characters, the mage/templar conflict rests firmly in the center of it all, the eye of our storm. Every scene in the White Spire mounts with tension and danger, tempers threatening to spill over on both sides even as compromises and peace attempt to be made—both ultimately dissatisfying to all parties. The distrust and wrongs committed by both sides are just too great a chasm to fill, and no matter what, you know something is about to take place. I felt like I was hovering upon a knife’s edge, waiting for the bloodshed to start, for one action to be taken too far, too personally.
Even if you feel strongly one way or the other about this conflict (pro-mage, always), the book takes great pains to show that every mage, templar, and Seeker of Truth has valid reasons and viewpoints for seeing the world and this specific plight as they do. It was impressive how well Gaider maintained that this conflict isn’t a black-and-white situation while also showing the truth of it in the self-awareness and actions of the characters, even when they were being their most unreasonable. For being as harsh and unforgiving as he is, even Lord Seeker Lambert demonstrates moments of thoughtfulness as well as insight, and I am surprised that I can admit that. That he wasn’t just a two-dimensional bastard villain.
It’s amazing what can be accomplished, how much depth even a little mass market paperback can have, when you write with nuance.
So yes, I loved this book and all the beautiful things it did, all the character moments and plot reveals with the lore woven expertly throughout. Whether you’ve already played DA:I or not, I cannot recommend Asunder any higher. Well done, Gaider!