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Review – Dragon Age: The Silent Grove

The plot of Dragon Age: The Silent Grove follows Alistair, an erstwhile mage-hunter (who you may have slept with if you played Dragon Age: Origins), Varric, a beardless dwarf rogue and raconteur, and Isabella, a pirate captain whose main distinction is that she will sleep with anyone (including you, if you played Dragon Age 2) on their quest to find someone whom everyone else thought was dead. Obstacles in their path include an elite group of assassins known as the Antivan Crows, a powerful sorceress and, of course, a really big dragon.

I was a little worried when I heard that David Gaider would doing the writing for this book. Gaider, the head writer for Bioware‘s Dragon Age video games, does a great job writing games, but his novel, The Stolen Throne was just god awful. Fortunately he is only credited with the story and script writer Alexander Freed  does a fine job of giving the artist the proper cues and capturing the voices of the various characters, so much so that I could almost hear voice actors reading the dialog. Each of the six chapters, which are digital exclusives you can download for 99 cents through the Dark Horse app, feel like fifteen minute episodes of a well made web series, and provide a satisfying experience while making you want to read more. There are revelations and surprises galore and the story feels essential to the Dragon Age canon, a nice change of pace in an age of superfluous tie-ins.

Chad Hardin‘s art feels a little bit rushed at the beginning of the story, but by the end  it really becomes quite good. Even at his roughest, Hardin never fails to capture the Dragon Age aesthetic. The main characters are all on model, and the locations feel like places you might explore in-game. The Antivans (Dragon Age‘s analog for Renaissance Italians) are not a group we’ve seen much of before but their design  fits so well that you have to wonder what the people at Bioware are planning for their next installment.

For all it’s good points, The Silent Grove does have some flaws. The first issue is weak in both art and story, so much so that if it weren’t for the introduction of a single major character I would recommend skipping it and starting with issue 2. Major plot threads are also left unresolved at the end of issue 6. You’re left with the impression that you’ve just read a prelude to something else,  be it the next game in the franchise or another comic book series.

While Dark Horse‘s first effort does feel more like Dragon Age than Orson Scott Card‘s failed IDW title (which the folks at Bioware seem as eager to forget  as I am),  some of the more distinctive elements of the setting are still missing.  There is no discussion of any of the hot button issues that made the original game feel so unique. Race, class, religion, gender and sexuality are all pretty  much ignored. Only two female characters appear and both could have walked right out of the pages of a Robert E. Howard story. It’s not as though Dark Horse is pandering to the morons  that make up the lowest common denominator of the Bioware fan base, but Silent Grove is a very safe book that seems calculated not to offend them. The book really feels like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, that was heavily inspired by the Dragon Age setting. If that’s what you’re after, and you don’t already have a connection to this particular game world, than you’re better off investing in IDW’s superior Dungeons and Dragons series.

Another problem is the way in which the book is laid out. This is a digital exclusive and presumably was designed to be read on an ipad or a comparable tablet, so why are there two page spreads that will only look really good when the book is printed for trade? Mostly it was just annoying but at one point in issue 6, I read the balloons in the wrong order because of the way the panels were laid out. Dark Horse provides reviewers promotional copies in PDF that Dark Horse so I didn’t  have the benefit of a guided view, but I seldom choose to use that feature when it’s available. My preference is to read page by page with my device oriented horizontally to imitate a physical book and it feels a little like I’m being penalized for this. If Dark Horse is serious about these digital exclusives they need to make more of an effort to think about the different ways in which readers like to experience digital entertainment.

In the end what you think of Dragon Age: The Silent Spring will largely depend on whether or not you enjoyed  Dragon Age: Origins and/or Dragon Age 2. For fans of the games it’s a fun book  that raise some intriguing questions to keep the wheels turning during what promises to be a long development cycle of Dragon Age 3 so this is a definite buy. If you didn’t like Dragon Age, than nothing here is going to change your mind.  Those who have never ventured into this universe at all may find themselves adrift  since The Silent Grove largely relies upon a reader’s previous connections to the character’s and the setting, and provides only the barest glimpse of what made the games so much fun. If you’re one of these people I’d recommend buying the first two issues to see how much you like the series, or waiting for one of Dark Horse Digital’s bundle sales.

Writers: David Gaider and Alexander Freed; Art: Chad Hardin

Story: 8   Art: 8   Overall: 8

A free copy of this product was provided to Graphic Policy for review.