What Do I Know About Books? Vox Machina: Kith & Kin

9780593496626 (1)We’re going to change it up a little bit today and look at a work of fiction that doesn’t have any rules attached to it. Well, the editors might disagree, but you know what I mean. We’re going to look at Vox Machina: Kith & Kin, the first novel released that follows characters from Critical Role. In this case, we go back to the days before Vex and Vax joined up with Vox Machina and examine one of their earlier adventures.

One of the reasons I wanted to look at this book is that I grew up in an era where game related IP went from “not existing” to “taking up major real estate in bookstores.” For those of you younger than me, bookstores were these places where they sold books, and they were present and not online.

Fiction First or Setting First?

I’ve written blog posts before about IP that has both interactive games and traditional storytelling within their purview, and how sometimes keeping a game world open can come into conflict with traditional storytelling, as major changes can happen to the world, and those changes are then removed from the available experiences available to those that play the interactive games. What’s really kind of fascinating in this case is that the characters in this story are characters that have been played in an ongoing campaign, with the book taking place in part of their history not detailed on the streaming show.

Stakes are tricking with these stories. Multiple Dragonlance prequel novels suffered from having the Heroes of the Lance pre-save the world, purposefully or on accident before they saved the world in the Dragonlance Chronicles. I always had a challenging time not feeling like that kind of prequel story undermined the impact of the original stories.

In other words, if you aren’t going to change the defined world, and you aren’t going to say that “what you thought you know wasn’t actually true,” then you have to find a way to set stakes that the reader will engage with, that doesn’t radically change the world as they know it.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Thursday Night?

Critical Role has a huge following, but the primary means of storytelling for the IP has been watching the crew playing their characters in a streamed D&D game on a weekly basis. That might be daunting for people that aren’t already in on the fandom. Even those that have picked up watching with campaign two or the current campaign may be face trepidation in diving into characters and events from campaign one.

What’s interesting with this IP is that we’re seeing a paradigm we haven’t really seen in the past. The primary storytelling may have been those four hour streamed game sessions, but between the Dark Horse Vox Machina Origins comics, the upcoming animated series The Legend of Vox Machina, and prequel novels like this one, there may be a vector for people that aren’t interested in streaming, or that don’t have time to catch up on a full campaign in the past, to still engage with the story of the original campaign.

A lot of what interested me about the Dragonlance novels when I first got into D&D was that these novels were based on adventures and that there were anecdotes of players that portrayed these characters in a campaign. Those characterizations gave birth to the fictive version of the characters. While those characters took on a life of their own once the novels got going, there was something that made those novels especially “D&D” to be because of the cross-section of how they came to be. I would have never pictured the evolution of that similar paradigm, where characters came directly from a D&D campaign, with the details of the past being filled in after the end of the campaign.

Pages and pages

I’m basing this review on the audiobook of this novel. The author of this novel is Marieke Nijkamp, and the book is available in audiobook, eBook, and hardcover formats at the time of this review. If you would like to see the other work that Nijkamp has authored, you can find her author’s page here:

Marieke Nijkamp Author’s Page

The audiobook is narrated by Robbie Daymond (a recent addition to the Critical Role cast), while Vex and Vax are performed by their players, Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien. The audiobook is 15 hours and 58 mins long. The hardcover version of the novel is 368 pages long. For more information on the different versions of the book, you can find the book’s page here:

Critical Role: Vox Machina-Kith and Kin (Penguin Random House Page)

Non-Spoilers

The story presented in this book involves Vax and Vex, half-elf siblings, in an adventure early in their adult careers. In addition to the “present-day” adventure, there are also flashbacks to their upbringing in both the human village of Byroden, and the elven city of Syngorn.

With Vax specializing in urban adventures and roguish endeavors, and Vex specializing in outdoor adventuring in the wilds, we get to see both siblings operating both in their chosen environment, and out of their element. We also get to see them working together and spend a sizable portion of the story away from one another.

Between the flashbacks and the thoughts that the two have when they are separated and working to get back in contact with one another, we see the origins of some of the personality elements that we may be familiar with from their later incarnations. Why does Vax feel more a home in cities? Why is the sibling that excels at roguish skills the one least interested in wealth? What does it take for the two to form bonds with others outside of their immediate family?

Nijkamp does an excellent job of setting stakes in this story. Vex and Vax aren’t saving the world, but there are still imminent threats to both the siblings and to those they have encountered. There is a good amount of action, with the characters dueling with villains and fighting monsters, but there is also a plot that needs to be explored and mysteries to unravel. The supporting characters are endearing, and the resolution of the threats looming over the siblings and their new friends isn’t as simple as finding a singular villain. While there are a few characters that end up with little redeeming in their characterization, not everyone that poses a threat can rightly be termed villainous.

From a setting standpoint, the book does an excellent job of establishing the baseline assumptions of the setting. You see a wide range of ancestries in the book, even in rural locations. Magic is known, and it’s not strange for a common person to have seen something supernatural. It may have helped some advances come to the pass sooner than in a similar setting in our history, but magic isn’t ubiquitous. As an aside, if you are a fan of goliaths . . . to be on the safe side, they are referenced in the book as half-giants.

You’ll see dueling and fights, you’ll see magic, you’ll see tracking skills and lockpicking, and you’ll see witty banter. You won’t see any one of those things dominate the story, nor will any one of those elements resolve the situations at hand. In fact, some of the snarls that creep into this story never get fully resolved, and others are resolved in messy fashions.

Epilogue

This was a very engaging book for me. From my previous exposure to the characters, they felt “right,” and while you have several scenes that explain how the characters develop, you don’t have any heavy-handed moments like having an Imperial officer naming someone Solo. The location and the people matter. It feels like a world with adventurers and magic and wondrous creatures, but not so much that you can’t empathize with the experiences you see unfolding as the story progresses.

Cliff-Notes

I think we get some strong insight into how Vex has developed emotionally, but I think we have a stronger feeling for why Vax adopted the skills that he learned. Neither feels underdeveloped, but I’m not quite as sure why Vex ended up as a ranger versus Vax’s inclination to be a stealthy, skulking character. The first major reason that Vex ends up “in trouble” feels a little too stereotypical, especially with Vax’s natural protectiveness added to the mix, and some of that doesn’t get resolved by the end of the book.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

My consumption of IP-related fiction is much less now than it was in the past, when I would read multiple IP licensed books per week, sometimes per weekend. With that in mind, this has been one of the most enjoyable IP-related novels that I’ve read in a long time.

Characters were engaging but also flawed. Characterization wasn’t heavy handed. Stakes were perfect for the level of engagement that I wanted. Characters felt competent without feeling like superheroes. Magic made things interesting but didn’t solve problems or rob any scenes of their climax.

I’m interested to see if Critical Role ends up with an expanding fanbase outside of those that are currently following the crew for the streaming games. It feels like there is room to bring in fans by casting a wider net, and that the world-building might progress at satisfying rate due to all the angles from which it occurs.

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