The franchise tie-in novel is a staple of the entertainment business, often presented as a way to consume more of a given piece of media or provide more insight into certain characters and settings. The larger the franchise, the more likely it is for tie-in novels to be commissioned, sometimes by truly talented authors. While these types of novels, years ago, were not very good for the most part, overall, the domain of the tie-in novel has been getting better and better. For example, the recent “High Republic” series out of Star Wars. Dungeons and Dragons, commonly referred to as the most popular role-playing game in the world, is no stranger to tie-in novels. From the very beginning, when Gary Gygax controlled the company behind the game, stories were being told in the various official settings, creating fan-favorite characters that still feature to this day. Today’s book is not an official Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novel, but the game is baked intricately into its DNA, but elevated to the point of just being a great novel.
In 2015, the show Critical Role began streaming life on the Geek and Sundry twitch channel when Felicia Day invited the cast to migrate their personal game of Dungeons and Dragons into the livestream format. Billed as a group of nerdy-ass voice actors playing dungeons and dragons, Critical Role originally began as a game the dungeon master, Matthew Mercer, ran for his friend and player, Liam O’Brien. The two are joined by fellow voice actors Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Ashley Johnson, Taliesin Jaffe, and Sam Riegal, along with current long-term guest player Robbie Daymond. Outside of Critical Role, their voices can be heard in a multitude of video games, animated shows and movies, and English anime dubs. Since it’s beginning, Critical Role has become explosively popular, allowing the group of friends to create their own company, independently owned and operated by them, to use their new platform to raise money to hire a full-time crew and establish a well-regarded charity. In a way, Critical Role could claim responsibility for much of the mainstream acceptance of Dungeons and Dragons over the last few years. For a lot of viewers, this group of friends was their first introduction to the game, unfortunately, leading to something known as the Mercer effect, where new players to the game expect their own dungeon masters to present the game like Matthew Mercer, a professional voice actor. Since the rise of the show, they have also branched out into tie-in comic books and graphic novels, along with a wildly successful Kickstarter to fund an animated series, and the novel Critical Role: Vox Machina: Kith & Kin, by Marieke Nijkamp. Nijkamp is an already established author of YA novels, comic books, and more, she has brought her considerable talent and love for the characters created by Critical Role along for the ride.
Critical Role’s first official tie-in novel serves as a prequel to their first campaign, with a campaign being a complete adventure in Dungeons and Dragons, often consisting of hundreds of hours of playing the game. While Critical Role is now in its third such campaign, Kith & Kin looks to the past and follows characters Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, half-elf identical twins portrayed by Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien. Usually known as Vex and Vax, a defining element of their characterization during the show’s run was them learning to live without each other. In Kith & Kin, we see these characters long before they experienced that growth and before they met the other main characters of the show. We see younger versions of them, new to travelling and finding work as adventurers in a fantastical setting that still blends plenty of realism in with the dragons and magic. This is not a world where killing a bad guy somehow solves every problem. While Nijkamp has clearly written this novel with a love of the show and characters in mind, there is still plenty for newcomers to enjoy. Kith & Kin features kinetic action scenes, a healthy dose of intrigue, complex character relationships, and a worthwhile mystery set-up that will keep you hooked. References to the actual playing of Dungeons and Dragons are also kept to an absolute minimum, and it would be difficult to tell this was technically a tie-in novel if a reader was not aware of the history of Critical Role.
Kith & Kin opens with the twins arriving in the city of Westruun looking for supplies and work, as their resources and funds are continually dwindling. The book establishes very early on the character dynamic between these two, with them being equal partners in every decision and always putting their bond before everything else. Vex is much more comfortable in the wilderness in the company of her bear companion, Trinket, while Vax thrives in crowded cities. Nijkamp spends a good deal of time making sure that we know who these two characters are before the main plot begins moving forward, understanding that a large draw of Critical Role has always been the character portrayals. While in Westruun, Vex inadvertently attracts the attention of a powerful, deranged man who puts out a contract on her with a powerful criminal organization, called The Clasp. In order to convince them to break the contract, Vax negotiates a deal with them where the twins will travel to the remote Jorenn Village to steal a ring named Fracture. A simple heist, as they are told, which quickly spirals into something much larger and complex. Fracture is owned by Shademaster Derowen, unofficial leader of the town, who uses the magical ring to keep undead monsters at bay. While she is loved by the town, a group of exiled miners, led by Thorn, see her as a tyrant. Vex and Vax become entangled and caught between these two sides as they are separated upon arrival, and must try to reunite while unraveling the mystery of why the Clasp wants Fracture.
While Kith & Kin is full of action and intrigue, it is fundamentally a story about familiar relationships, and what a good familial relationship looks like. Fans of the show already know how strong the bond is between Vex and Vax, and Nijkamp goes to great lengths to reinforce just how dedicated these siblings are to each other. Vax enters into his contract with the Clasp willingly to protect Vex, and Vex’s main motivation for much of the story is to find her brother. There is little they would not do to protect each other, but Nijkamp also makes sure readers understand why their bond is so strong. Through a series of flashback chapters, we see the story of how the twins’ father, Syldor Vessar, an elf and diplomat in the elven city of Syngorn, took them from their mother’s home and tried to raise them as elves. Syngorn is shown to be an extremely judgmental and xenophobic city, and Syldor never once shows his children love or affection, instead subjecting them to emotional abuse and viewing them as inconveniences. During the present-day of the novel, Shademaster Derown and her brother Culwen showcase a sibling relationship full of unease, while miner leader Thorn carries undying love for his deceased sister. In Westruun, the Clasp refers to itself as a family, twisted in the way that real-life criminal organizations are. Nijkamp does an excellent job showcasing what family means, and how just being related is not enough to actually be a family. It requires mutual respect and dedication as a foundation. Vex and Vax are not necessarily family because they are twins, although that certainly helps. Rather, they choose to be family, and that is all the more important.
That being said, Kith and Kin understands that people, and morality, can be very complicated. Nijkamp does a wonderful job injecting a dose of realism into the fantasy setting, something Critical Role fans are certainly familiar with, but which may be a twist for newer readers. The world of Kith & Kin is not the kind of fantasy world where slaying one singular bad guy solves all of the characters’ problems. Rather, things are often much more complex, and people who want to do the right thing might find themselves compromising ideals or working with dark influences to accomplish their goals. While there is one clear villain in Kith & Kin by the end, most of the novel is spent trying to establish who is more villainous, Thorn or Derowen. There is an argument to made for each of them being both villainous and heroic in their own right, with Vex and Vax seeing very different sides to these two characters. Thorn places his community before his needs, and everything Derowen does is to protect her young daughter, Aswin. Nijkamp makes sure readers know that no character is all good or all bad. Even Vex and Vax are not immune to this. While they eventually decide to help Jorenn Village, they are reluctant to get involved more than necessary, with the two of them placing themselves before most other people. This is a completely understandable dynamic, given their background.
For fans of the show, Critical Role: Vox Machina: Kith & Kin is a must-read, especially for those who have watched the first campaign, which featured these characters. For everyone else, Nijkamp has still created a very strong novel which does a good job of standing on its own, not relying on knowledge of the show to enjoy. The world building is thorough, the characters are well developed, and the plot is engaging. While I read the hardcover print, the audio book is also a delightful experience. Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien each reprise their roles as Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, while Matthew Mercer provides the voice of Trinket the bear, and novel is narrated by Robbie Daymond. A series of great performances for a great story. Whether you are an existing fan of Critical Role or just a lover of fantasy in general, I strongly recommend you check out Kith & Kin.
Critical Role: Vox Machina: Kith & Kin can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 15 days
Next on the List: Leviathan Falls, by James S. A. Corey