Critical Role, a web series where a group of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons, is a dominating force in nerdom. It has provided hundreds upon hundreds of hours of entertainment to its fans over the course of three D&D campaigns, one-shot games, and mini-series. It would not be hyperbole to say that the show is the face of the role-playing game for many people. Ever since the show spun off from Geek and Sundry to form its own, independent production studio, Critical Role has been expanding into other formats aside from actually showing the cast members playing Dungeons and Dragons. It began with a series of comic books filling in parts of the story from before the show began airing, then moved into novels, and now they even have an animated series two seasons deep on Amazon. The ways for fans both new and old to engage with the fictional world never stop.
The first Critical Role novel, Kith and Kin, focused on two characters from the show’s first campaign, Vox Machina. That story leaned a little more towards traditional fantasy than later stories, featuring a cast of admittedly flawed heroes fighting against clear evil, world-ending threats. The second novel, however, is based on the show’s second campaign, The Mighty Nein. Tonally, this was a departure from Vox Machina. The main characters were not heroic from the beginning, trying to navigate a more complicated world full of politics and corruption. There were still villains and world-ending plots, but they were hidden behind influential institutions or tacitly approved of by powerful governments. The final villain of the series, Lucien, was even more complicated. A soul occupying the body of a dead friend, he was not a powerful or influential foe. He did not have the connections or wealth to push his will. Which is why, when he enacted his own world-ending plan, no one except the heroes even knew about it.
Critical Role: The Mighty Nein—The Nine Eyes of Lucien, by Madeleine Roux, (shortened to The Nine Eyes of Lucien from now on) is the second official Critical Role novel. Rather than focusing on any one of the heroic main characters, as Kith and Kin did, Roux instead centers solely on the character of Lucien. In the web series, Lucien proved to be a memorable villain; a combination of his charismatic nature, his plan and effect on the campaign, and his connection to the main characters. At the start of the stories, one of the cast members played a character named Mollymauk Tealeaf. Molly died relatively early on and, rather than trying to find a way to keep that character, the player opted to move onto someone new. Lucien the villain shares a body with that same Mollymauk, being two parts of the same soul with extremely different personalities. It is the nature of Dungeons and Dragons that the heroes do not interact with the villains all that often, usually only coming together in a climatic fight. However, because of that shared connection between characters, Lucien spent a lot of time with the main characters, leaving a lasting impression and an opening for further storytelling.
The Nine of Eyes of Lucien functions as a deep dive into the psyche and life of Lucien, both before he became Mollymauk Tealeaf and after he reclaimed his body and embarked on his plan. Roux’s writing and understanding of the characters is remarkable, keeping the intention always close to his mind and never straying off topic. We see everything through Lucien’s eyes and interpret events as he filters them. The book opens with Lucien as a child or early teenager in the rough town of Shadycreek Run and follows him over the course of many years. We meet his close friend, Cree, who follows him to the end of the story, and Brevyn, a sometimes romance. In the first portion of the novel, Roux centers the relationship between these three as a foundational relationship, grounding Lucien and explaining much of his personality. Lucien is a survivor at his core, slightly arrogant and believing himself to be meant for greater things, but he also deeply cares about those closest to him. Later in the story, that expands beyond just Cree and Brevyn into his mercenary group, the Tombtakers. However, fans of the Mighty Nein will immediately understand that things are going to go wrong for Lucien and his friends, as some of them do not appear in the show. Roux takes her time fleshing out these characters before connecting Lucien with the events that will lead to his eventual heel turn, showcasing just why he can be called a tragic villain.
A major part of the second half of the novel, and a centerpiece to Lucien’s eventual potentially world-ending plan, is the Somnovem. In the world of Critical Role, there used to be a number of flying magical cities until a war between the gods sent them all crashing to the earth. One such city was Aeor, within which was the Cognouza ward. The Somnovem were a group of philosophers who controlled that ward and, to escape the war between the gods, sent their portion of the city spinning off into the Astral Sea. An existence of dreams and magic incarnate. Being unable to touch the world themselves, they come into contact with Lucien, granting him powers and promises in order to work with him towards the goal of returning to the world. The nine philosophers are also completely insane, having spent a thousand years stranded. Their introduction is where Roux really starts playing around with the novel and taking some very interesting risks. Rather than writing their dialogue using the standard quotation marks and tags, she weaves it into the narrative using different fonts. Lucien, and the reader, learn to differentiate the different voices. Another voice is added to the mix later, conducting entire conversations in footnotes. Also, as Lucien nears his goal and his mental state deteriorates from the experience, Roux intersperses disjointed interludes as well between the chapters.
Fans of the Mighty Nein might come into the novel wondering when their favorite characters show up or looking forward to the recreation of certain scenes from the campaign. While the main characters do make appearance towards the end of the novel as Roux pushes towards the climax, their involvement is relatively minor. Because we see them entirely through Lucien’s eyes, they do not wholly resemble the characters fans may know. Perception is everything. We also do not see any of the time they spent with Mollymauk Tealeaf as Roux keeps the focus solely on Lucien. His missing years are simply missing. In this way, Roux keeps the stakes feeling very personal. In the campaign, the characters know what will happen if Lucien’s plan succeeds and the Somnovem are allowed back into the world. But, to Lucien, he just wants their power to make his dreams, and the dreams of his friends, come true.
For fans of Critical Role, and especially those fans who love the Mighty Nein, The Nine Eyes of Lucien is an essential read. However, that strength also works against it one key way. Where Kith and Kin provided a decent entry point into the world, telling a new story relatively unconnected from the show, this novel requires a decent understanding of the show’s second campaign. Since we do not see Lucien’s time as Mollymauk, it can be difficult to understand why the Mighty Nein have such a connection and influence over Lucien in the later chapters. However, as a companion piece to that story, this novel does an excellent job in fleshing out a villain whom Critical Role fans will never forget.
Critical Role: The Mighty Nein—The Nine Eyes of Lucien is available in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 4 days
Next on the List: I Want to Be Your Doll, by Mira Ong Chua