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Literature / The Masked Empire

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The Masked Empire is the fourth Dragon Age novel, released on April 8, 2014.

The book was scribed by Bioware writer Patrick Weekesnote  and takes place in Orlais some time after Dragon Age II and concurrently with Asunder.

The novel centres around the events leading to the Orlesian Civil War with Empress Celene I struggling to hold on to her throne whilst Duke Gaspard, the commander of the Orlesian Chevaliers, leads an insurrection against her. Despite Gaspard having won many battles in her name, he now believes Celene's leadership has grown too weak in the face of ever growing chaos.

Meanwhile the Empresses' Elven spymaster and lover Briala, begins to unravel some mysteries she wish she'd never uncovered...

The novel provides examples of following tropes:

  • Affably Evil: Imshael is rather polite for a demon who likes to burn and flay people alive.
  • All Take and No Give: Briala achieves high station from her relationship with Celene, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the buck stops there. The vast discrepancy in power, their society's abusive treatment of elves, and Celene's willingness to throw the city elves under the bus demonstrates that she values Briala as a spymaster first and a lover second, and even as lovers, places little importance on what Briala thinks on the elves.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: In the meeting between Celene and Leliana, the former ask the latter how large the Archdemon was. Leliana's answer is that it was large enough that most problems seems small in comparison.
  • ...And That Would Be Wrong: Imshael points out that his ability to distract an entire camp of Dalish elves by whistling is useful for getting out of trouble "or watching ladies undress," then quickly walks that last one back.
    Imshael: Not that I ever would. Because that would be wrong.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Briala is awestruck by the the Eluvians, and gushes about how grand the ancient Elven empire must have been. Felassan responds by asking "Who do you think scrubbed the floors?" She's utterly horrified when she realizes the answer: Other elves.
  • Automaton Horses: Averted. Ser Michel mentions how important it is not to run their horses too hard, especially when they have only one to carry both himself and Celene. A few paragraphs are also devoted to Michel rubbing the horses down and tending to their hooves, and Michel mentions that he's having to make do with rather poor tools.
  • Badass Creed: "Death before dishonour," the creed of the Orlesian chevaliers.
  • Badass Normal: Briala, Michel, and Gaspard are ordinary people with no magical powers or enchanted items. Each of them are capable of greatly impressive physical feats.
  • Boomerang Bigot:
    • Michel is very bigoted against elves. It quickly turns out that this is an attempt to mask the fact that his mother was one.
    • While the Dalish and city elves are about as different as night and day, the fact remains that they are both elves and suffer greatly at the hands of their human overlords. Rather than get along and try to come up with a solution to this, the Dalish seen in this novel seem to hate the city elves almost as much as the humans and distrust most things that aren't Dalish, trying to recover the lost halcyon age of Arlathan, Elvhenan, and the Creators.
  • Brick Joke: Back in Dragon Age: Origins, Loghain dismissed the idea of peace with Orlais, claiming that peace just meant "fighting someone else's enemies in someone else's war for someone else's reasons." Cue to the early chapters of this book, where Celene reflects on her reasoning for wanting to marry Ferelden into Orlais; to drive back Nevarra and keep Tevinter from getting any ideas.
  • Broken Pedestal: Happens to Briala three times:
    • When Briala finally meets the Dalish, she learns that they care nothing for the plight of the city elves, whom the Dalish consider to be hopelessly corrupted by the humans. Keeper Thelhen indicates that this is not only his clan's view, but the majority opinion among other Dalish clans.note 
    • Briala is horrified to learn that the ancient elven empire was just as corrupt as Orlais and that the elven nobles enslaved other elves.
    • Finally, Briala realizes that Celene was the one behind the murder of her parents.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early in the story, Briala promises to keep Michel's secret in return for a favor. Briala calls in this favor in the climax to force Michel to yield the duel with Gaspard, prolonging the civil war so she can launch her rebellion.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Briala has been Celene's handmaid since they were children, and has used her position to subtly help elves throughout Orlais. Until it becomes inconvenient to her power.
  • Civil War / Mêlée à Trois: Not only is the ongoing Mage-Templar War engulfing Thedas, but Orlesian instability has caused the entire nation to descend into civil war, in addition to the oppressed Elven population taking advantage of the situation to launch their own uprising.
  • Conflicting Loyalties: As Celene is forced to choose between the rights of elves and her hold on the throne, Briala has to question where her loyalties lie. Ultimately, Briala finds that she can't accept Celene's willingness to sacrifice the well being of her elven subjects to secure her power, and goes rogue.
  • Crapsack World: The novel makes it clear Orlais is not a nice place to live for pretty much anyone. If you're a commoner, you're basically an Unperson whose needs are not on anyone's agenda. It's a lot worse if you're an elf. If you're a noble, yeah, you have a lot of money and get to live in luxury, but your every word, emotion, love affair, and decision is a part of the Game, and don't consider the death of yourself or your loved ones beyond the capabilities of your rivals.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Imshael inflicts horrible deaths on all of the elves in Clan Virnehn, with one elf being flayed alive, another being turned into a pincushion of arrows, and one boiled from the inside out as just a few examples.
  • Darker and Edgier: By far the darkest and most depressing of the Dragon Age novels. Civil war, war crimes/rape, blood feuds, petty rivalries, corrupt nobles, scheming, and mass murders make up on half of the novel. The other half is entirely about Fantastic Racism and how much the humans hate the elves who hate the humans who hate the elves, and how the Dalish don't respect the city elves, not understanding the latter did not willingly assimilate, and resort to consorting with demons to recover just some of their lost culture. It's hard to go a single page in this novel without a human being called a "shemlen" or an elf being called a "knife ear" or "rabbit".
  • Disappointing Heritage Reveal: Briala grows disillusioned with the urban life and the passivity of her fellow city elves in the face of their mistreatment by humans. Under the influence (but against the intentions) of her Dalish mentor Felassan, she comes to idolize the life of the Dalish clans (elves who refused to submit to the humans and roam the wilderness as nomads), and seeks contact with them in the first half of the book. What she discovers, however, is that the Dalish are a xenophobic and myopically traditionalist bunch who don't want to have anything to do with their city brethren in general and with her in particular.
  • The Empire:
    • The ancient Elven empire was this, even practicing slavery with a rigid caste system and keeping lower-class elves in conditions similar to those of the city elves of the current day.
    • Orlais itself, full of corrupt and scheming nobles who abuse the low born. Especially the elves.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Although he quickly recovers himself from it, even the racist and battle-hardened Gaspard is sickened by the sight of the slaughtered Dalish clan that Imshael leaves behind, thinking that not even elves deserve such cruel fates.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: As Felassan points out, the ancient Elven empire was an empire. With all that that entails.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • After Gaspard loses his duel with Michel, he congratulates Michel on his victory and calmly awaits the killing blow.
    • Felassan reports to his master, knowing that he will almost certainly be executed for his failure to get the Eluvian password. He remains completely calm.
  • Fantastic Racism: Seems to be the main theme of the book. The vast majority of the conflicts and scandals in the novel only occur because of the pointless, excessive, and idiotic prejudice against commoners and elves. Things are so bad for "knife-ears" in Orlais that the Empress merely declaring the elves to be equal citizens before the Maker and the throne would be a shocking act tantamount to political suicide. The Dalish don't trust Celene or her attempts at bargaining (not without reason, as humans have previously rescinded their promises and betrayed the elves). They are also offended by her offer to put alienage elves in the universities and even the nobility, because those elves aren't the real elves. Basically everyone hates everyone, nobody gets along, and in general Orlais is just a really shitty place.
  • The Grand Hunt: The book makes it clear that hunts are the standard practice of the Orlesian nobility—as well as the most accepted way of getting rid of rivals.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: It's made abundantly clear that Celene and Gaspard are both flawed people who truly believe that they are doing the right thing for their country.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: It is strongly implied that Felassan knew that his master would kill him for refusing to let Briala tell him the passphrase to use the Eluvians.
  • Honor Before Reason: Downplayed with Gaspard. The Grand Duke believes strongly that honor does not preclude tactics and is skilled at interpreting the Chevalier's code to his advantage, but there are some situations where the code forces him to do the disadvantageous thing. In those cases, Gaspard will always choose the code over victory.
  • Hypocrite: The book does not paint a pretty picture of the Orlesian Chevaliers, who are supposed to abide by a rigid code of honor... that only applies to noble humans. note  Otherwise, when dealing with commoners and elves, they are just as, if not more, ruthless and cruel than their supposedly "lesser" counterparts in the Orlesian military. One particularly disgusting pastime of chevaliers is to go on raids in elven slums as part of their training, where they kill random, innocent elven civilians for no other reasons than to prove their warped concept of nobility. Definitely brings a new meaning to Lord Chancer de Lion's claims that chevaliers are generally distrusted by the common folk.
  • Insistent Terminology: Every time someone calls Imshael a demon, he cannot help but correct them that he is a "choice spirit" instead. This is later exploited to foil Imshael's disguise of possessing Mhiris.
  • Interspecies Romance: Celene, a human, and Briala, an elf; this is given mean-spirited focus in the novel by Gaspard insinuating that Celene is engaging in bestiality by having an elven lover, as he pays academics to suggest elves are no better than beasts.
  • It Can Think: While investigating the remains of the Dalish camp, Lienne notes that demons typically stick to one or two methods of killing their enemies; for instance, if they like fire, then they'll always use fire to slay others. The Dalish elves have been slaughtered by Imshael in a dozen different ways, including being set ablaze, impalement, being flayed alive and other methods too gruesome to recount.
  • Kiss of Distraction: Towards the end of the novel, Celene is surprised by an untypically forceful and long kiss by Briala—and only later realizes that Briala pickpocketed the Eluvian activation stone from her at that moment.
  • Know Your Vines: Felassan uses a certain kind of flower to make a metaphor on the nature of life springing up in the aftermath of violence... only to realize the plant he's carrying is itchweed, which has no symbolic significance.
  • Lady and Knight: Celene and Ser Michel are a platonic version of this, with his familiarity to her in public spaces proving at least a certain level of comfort and friendship.
  • Missing Steps Plan: This is how Felassan describes the attempts of the Dalish to reclaim their lost home:
    They have a wonderful new plan! It ends with the shemlen killing each other off, leaving the Dales free for the elves to rule. [It begins with] riding around in wagons pulled by deer. They're still working out the middle.
  • Mundane Utility: Celene has an enchanted teapot that always keeps her tea warm without need for a fire.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Michel's attempt to cheat Imshael results in the demon escaping from his wards and slaughtering the Dalish.
  • Noble Demon: Gaspard may be ambitious and a warmonger, but he is a strong believer in the Chevalier's code. He will not torture prisoners, he treats his enemies with respect, and he will honor truces. He even goes so far as to kill Duke Remarche, his most politically powerful ally, for attempting to kill Celene during a truce.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The main feature of the Grand Game. It appears the Orlesian nobility does little else than fire undercover jabs at each other.
  • Prank Punishment: When Empress Celene's bodyguard Michel is challenged to a duel by her rival-for-the-throne Duke Gaspard in front of the entire court, she manages to defuse the situation by reminding Gaspard that the challenged may choose the dueling weapon (a choice Michel immediately defers to her) and decreeing that the duel will be fought with the plumes on their hats. Because in Orlais, the plumes are a symbol of the chevalier warrior class, this both humiliates Gaspard (who prides himself in his chevalier status) as punishment for openly, if indirectly challenging the Empress, and transforms the duel from a potential lethal incident to a source of amusement for the entire court. To his credit, Gaspard takes it in stride and duels Michel to the best of his ability, though the book never reveals who "won".
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking:
    • Celene is trained as a bard and has some enchanted rings which give her an edge in combat.
    • Gaspard is an exceptionally skilled Chevalier. Subverted in the epilogue, when Gaspard tells Michel that the wound he received during their duel will likely mean that his fighting days are over.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Much of the beginning of the book is dedicated to showcasing the soporific and stressful nature of Celene's position, who often spends nights poring over reports and documents.
  • Sequel Hook: The ending sets up several plotlines to be resolved in Inquisition: Celene and Gaspard are both still alive and the Orlesian Civil War still rages, Briala uses the Eluvians to create an elven revolution that just might succeed in overthrowing the Empire, Michel goes on a quest to hunt the demon Imshael, and Felassan is revealed to be working for a mysterious figure who was after the Eluvians.
  • Sherlock Scan: Briala can figure out a person's secrets and plots just by looking at them.
  • Shoot the Dog: Celene does a lot of nasty things for the sake of the Empire. For instance, she burns down the elven slums of Halamshiral, killing 3,000 elves, to put down an unthreatening elven rebellion so the human public does not believe she's too soft on elves.
  • Spotting the Thread: Thanks to her bard training, Briala is a master at picking up on little details and what they mean when talking to people. Thanks to this, late in the novel she begins to realize that wherever Felassan comes from, he is nothing like the conventional Dalish and may not even be Dalish at all—because he never stops to acknowledge statues of the Elven gods, unlike every other elf in Clan Virnehn.
  • Straight Gay: Celene and Briala's sexuality doesn't shape their personalities. Gaspard is genuinely shocked to learn that his allegations that Celene was sleeping with a female elven servant were actually true—even so, he finds the "elven servant" part more shocking than the "female" part, of which he merely remarks that his own proposals to Celene must have been rejected due to lack of proper "tools".
  • The Spymaster: Briala.
  • Throwing the Fight: Briala forces Michel to yield (after almost winning, no less!) to Gaspard in return for her not going public with the news of his elven ancestry.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Briala stabs Lienne in the stomach and tells her that she should be fine if she gets medical attention. The latter calls Briala a knife-ear instead and gets a slit throat for her trouble.
  • Wham Line: "I call upon your debt. Yield."
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Celene staged an assassination attempt on herself that killed most of her servants (including Briala's parents) so the nobility would be outraged that Emperor Florian tried to kill a recently orphaned sixteen-year-old girl and rally behind her.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ser Michel and Gaspard come to see one another as this.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": After Gaspard outs Celene's relationship to Briala in a play, Celene immediately sets out to prove she's "not soft with elves" by violently quelling an elven rebellion in the Halamshiral Alienage. She has her Chevaliers burn the entire alienage to the ground and butcher any elves trying to escape the flames, leaving over three thousand people dead in one night. She mentally justifies it as a tragic necessity for the good of the Empire, neatly glossing over that she mass-slaughtered an entire ethnic group just to save her own power.
  • Wrecked Weapon: During their duel, Gaspard exploits a flaw in Ser Michel's sword and breaks it. Michel still manages to outfight Gaspard even with the broken sword.
  • You Have Failed Me: The mysterious figure that Felassan was working for executes him for giving Briala control over the Eluvians. It's revealed in Inquisition that this person was Solas.