Dragon Age: Hard in Hightown
Writers: Varric Tethras, Mary Kirby
Illustrators: Stefano Martino, Andres Ponce, German Ponce, Alvaro Sarraseca
Cover Artist: E.M. Gist
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Review by Stacy Dooks
While Mass Effect gets a lot of love (and rightly so), if I was pressed to choose between the two franchises, I have to say that Dragon Age gets the nod for my favorite BioWare property. The intricate world of Thedas crafted by the talent there created a fantasy world that–while sharing a number of familiar tropes–played around with them in interesting ways and crafted something wholly original out of material that’s (if we’re being brutally honest) largely been done to death. Like a lot of you, I immediately dropped everything and played my way through Dragon Age: Inquisition, and, while we wait (im)patiently for the next installment in the greater saga of Dragon Age on our computers or consoles, we do occasionally receive the odd missive from Thedas. This time it’s a work of in-universe prose, a novel written by a certain someone Dragon Age fans all know and love. Buckle up kids because we’re about to go hard with Dragon Age: Hard in Hightown, written by that crossbow-wielding wordsmith himself, Varric Tethras! Does it ascend to the side of the Maker or should it be cast into the depths of the Fade?
Okay, for the benefit of people unfamiliar with Dragon Age, permit me a moment to explain. One of the characters you encounter in the games is a dwarven information broker/adventurer/storyteller by the name of Varric Tethras. Think Gimli by way of Stephen King and swap the traditional dwarven battleaxe for a repeating crossbow named Bianca and you’re on the right track. In-universe Varric pens a number of penny dreadful/dime novel-style stories about a particular guardsman in the city of Kirkwall, a maverick constable who plays by his own rules but might just be getting a little too old for this excitement. Now Varric (ably “assisted” by Mary Kirby, who wrote Varric’s story arcs in Dragon Age II and Inquisition), brings the reader into the seedy world of the Kirkwall criminal and the hardened men and women who patrol those mean streets. A murder has been committed, and the seasoned guardsman Donnen Brennokovic and his rookie partner Jevlan are on the case. Donnic’s got two weeks to retirement but he’ll be damned if the killer gets away on his watch. But what does this dead magistrate have to do with pirates, mercenaries, secret societies, and ancient relics? Will Donnen find the truth before whoever’s behind it all puts a dagger in his back?
Before I get to the review, let me state that when I first heard about this book I was on-board. An entire prose novel set in the world of Dragon Age, but more importantly a novel that’s been published and is read by people in the world of Dragon Age, by Varric Tethras? Sign me the hell up. I love a good crime novel, and I love when mystery and fantasy mix (check out Simon R. Green’s really quite excellent Hawk & Fisher novels for an example of what I mean). So once a review copy came up for grabs among the good company of Rogues Portal reviewers, I staked my claim, got my grubby mitts on it. And it’s really, really good! A fast paced, well written mystery story with some wonderful illustrations throughout and a killer cover besides.
But it’s only 72 pages. Mind you, they’re a good 72 pages but I liken my reaction to expecting a full sundae and just getting a sampler cup of ice cream. Delicious, yes, but I expected more. Still, if I had to earn my Marvel No-Prize I’d suggest that the 72-page volume is about as long as a pulp or penny dreadful style story would be in a magazine or periodical of the time period or in universe.
The Verdict: Buy It.
If you’re a fan of the source material, then Dragon Age: Hard in Hightown is probably already on your to-buy list. Half the fun is enjoying a story written by Varric himself and working out just who the inspiration might be for the various characters in the story. But even if you aren’t, it’s a fun piece of fantasy writing with some legitimately entertaining twists and turns. Recommended.