Ferelden is now a stable kingdom under the rule of King Maric, who has entered a malaise since Rowan died and feels that he is both a lousy king and an awful father. Loghain has become Teryn of Gwaren and his most trusted advisor, but grows more cold and bitter by the year. Maric is approached by the Grey Wardens, who want to be let back into Ferelden after centuries of exile.
Leading them is Genevieve, the Commander of the Grey from Orlais who wants to go into the Deep Roads and find her brother, the former Warden-Commander Bregan, which instantly sets Loghain to hating her and assuming they want only to overthrow Maric and reinstate Orlesian control. As there hasn't been a Blight in centuries, most people mistrust or actively hate the Wardens, but guided by a cryptic warning from Flemeth back during the events of The Stolen Throne Maric believes that the Wardens do herald a real danger and volunteers to join them and be their guide to Ortan Thaig in the Deep Roads.
A young warden named Duncan is assigned to be his assistant and bodyguard (and - if Maric learns "anything he shouldn't" about the order - his intended killer) and they proceed. As it becomes clear that Genevieve is both obsessive and unstable, Bregan slowly is swayed to helping a mysterious darkspawn calling himself the Architect in wiping out most of both humanity and the darkspawn and forcing the survivors of both to becoming the same halfway-creature Grey Wardens become after the Calling, as he knows where the Old Gods, which the darkspawn are all compelled to find and unleash as an Archdemon, sleep.
As the Wardens and Maric travel underground, Genevieves instability begin to lead to casualties as Duncan tries to deny what he's seeing, as she is a sort of idol of his. Maric and an elven mage named Fiona begin to develop an intimacy that allows Maric to start forgiving himself for the past before Genevieve, too, is persuaded to join the Architect along with Utha, a "Silent Sister" of the dwarven race.
After a narrow escape from the Deep Roads in which all but Maric, Duncan and Fiona are killed, the trio are captured by Orlesian sympathizers allied with the Architect, Bregan and Genevieve who wish to use the Architect to destroy all of darkspawn and humanity with the sole exception of Orlais. After a fearsome battle with the darkspawn-augmented First Enchanter Remille, Loghain bursts in and Maric returns to the castle in Denerim.
Some time later, Duncan and Fiona return to Denerim when Logain is back in Gwaren. Duncan is second-in-command of the Wardens in Ferelden, and somehow Fiona has become immune to the Calling that eventually takes all other Wardens. She hands Maric their child, implied to be Alistair, and tells him to make him believe he has a dead human mother rather than let him realize he's half-elven.
The stories of the Architect and Utha are continued in Dragon Age: Origins Awakening.
This novel contains the following tropes:
- A Lighter Shade of Grey: The Architect's plan for peace touches upon this.
- Babies Ever After: Fiona introduces Maric to his newborn son in the epilogue.
- Battle Couple: Julien and Nicolas.
- Big Damn Heroes: Subverted, Loghain and the Fereldans arrive after the fighting is mostly over.
- Body Horror: What happens to Wardens who don't die at the Calling; when Fiona is possessed and becomes an abomination.
- Bond One-Liner: "How's that for an insect?"
- Bury Your Gays: Julien and Nicolas, who end up getting offed halfway through the story. As such, they are they only characters without a role in the climax.
- Cain and Abel: Bregan and Genevieve. Subverted when she joins him. Double subverted when she turns on him after learning that the Architect seeks to force all of humanity to undergo the Joining. Triple subverted when the Architect drops a bridge on her before she can fight Bregan, causing Bregan to undergo a HeelFace Turn.
- The Cassandra: Loghain's belief that the whole thing is a plot by Orlais to overthrow Maric is correct, although the Grey Wardens themselves are uninvolved.
- Chekhov's Gun: The knife that Duncan steals from the First Enchanter.
- Contrived Coincidence: Lampshaded by Maric, who notes how convenient it is for them to run into the First Enchanter and his entourage right after escaping the deep roads. His suspisions are confirmed when it turns out the whole mission was a setup, and the mages were actually waiting for them.
- The Corruption: The darkspawn spread a terrible plague that is weaponized by Remille and in a way, the Wardens.
- Death Seeker: Loghain suspects Maric's willingness to go with the Wardens is just an excuse to get himself killed out of grief over the loss of his wife.
- Determinator: Deconstructed with Genevieve, whose stubbornness frequently endangers the team.
- Doomed by Canon: Duncan, Fiona and Utha are the only ones guaranteed to live, with the latter, who appears in Awakening, joining the Architect.
- Family-Unfriendly Death: The Architect has a fire spell that eats its target, which he uses to kill Genevieve and severely injure Bregan when he turns on him shortly afterwards. Remille tries to use this on Duncan, but his obsidian dagger blocks it.
- FaceHeel Turn: Bregan, who's later joined by Genevieve and Utha.
- Fatal Flaw: Although her intentions are good, Genevieve is revealed to be a Poisonous Friend who drags people down with her.
- Hannibal Lecture: The Calling is when the Old Gods speak/sing to a Warden's mind.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: Genevieve turns on The Architect when she learns what his plan really entails, and is immediately killed before she can do anything about it.
- Heroic Dog: Hafter, Kell's loyal warhound.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Julien, who saves Duncan's life at the cost of his own, and Kell, who ultimately stays behind to buy the remaining characters time to escape.
- Honor Before Reason: Why Maric saves Fiona and the Wardens rather than stay with Katriel, who insists that they can still be together.
- Ice Queen: Genevieve
- It's a Wonderful Plot: A demon pulls this by trapping everyone in a dream, showing the ways their lives could have turned out. For everyone except Maric and Fiona, this seems to involve never becoming a Grey Warden.
- Let Them Die Happy: The characters allow Nicolas to remain within the Lotus-Eater Machine so he can be with Julien.
- Lotus-Eater Machine: A Sloth Demon traps Duncan and co. in their own dreams. Most people have pleasant ones, in fact so pleasant that one of them never leaves, but Fiona...
- Not What I Signedup For: Genevieve joins The Architect in his plans for peace. However, when she learns that his plan involves giving all of humanity the joining ritual (which would kill most of them), she turns on him.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The Wardens are more freaked out by the fact that the darkspawn aren't constantly at their backs.
- Oh, Crap!: When Kell spots the dragon.
- Plucky Girl: Fiona.
- Real Dreams are Weirder: Both Duncan and Maric have "cheese dreams."Fiona: You dream of those you love because there is a bond between you. The spirits recognize this. That bond has power in the Fade.Maric: I once dreamed Loghain brought me a barrel of cheese. I opened it up, and there were mice inside. Made of cheese. Which we ate while singing sea chanteys.
- Redemption Equals Death: Bregan, who turns against Remille and is the one who finishes him off. He is executed immediately afterwards, at his own urging.
- Relationship Reveal: Julien and Nicolas. When the former dies, the latter is noticeably distraught. He picks himself up and keeps going, but when the Sloth Demon brings Julien back to him in a vision, he's approached by Maric, Kell, Utha, and Duncan, who wish to speak with him. Julien refuses to go when Nicolas asks that he leave him to talk with the four alone, but Julien shuts him up with a kiss, utterly surprising Maric, who then realizes the true extent of their relationship.
- Shoo the Dog: Kell tries to do this to Hafter before his Heroic Sacrifice. It doesn't work.
- Spirit Advisor: A spirit who may or may not be Katriel appears to help Maric when he and the Grey Wardens are trapped inside The Fade.
- Smug Snake: The First Enchanter, who even the Architect has nothing but disdain for.
- Sure, Let's Go with That: A mage girl during the Wardens' time in the Circle tower catches Duncan sneaking around, assumes that he was looking for her (she'd been making eyes at him at a meeting the Wardens had attended with the mages) and offers to take him to her room for some 'relaxation'. Duncan wasn't looking for her at all, but goes along with it because A). it's easier than explaining he was actually robbing the First Enchanter's office and B). he admits the girl is actually quite pretty.
- Tragic Hero: Genevieve and Nicolas.
- Utopia Justifies the Means: The Architect's plan to achieve peace between humans and the darkspawn.
- Villain: Exit, Stage Left: During the fight with the First Enchanter, the Architect and Utha manage to escape.
- You Know I'm Black, Right?:Duncan: What? Are all mages such evil bastards?Fiona: [snorts] I'm a mage!
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: Right after Maric, Fiona, and Duncan barely escape the Deep Roads with their lives, having evaded the Architect and numerous darkspawn, they bump into First Enchanter and two other mages, who subdue and capture them all.