Dungeons & Dragons tell the story of players and their characters working with a Dungeon Master to craft an adventure. It might be one mundane in nature like a party operating a run-down tavern, or an epic struggle between light and dark with the multiverse on the line. Critical Role has managed to transcend the format with multiple entries of their adventuring parties setting out on new adventures through comics like The Mighty Nein Origins, or reliving a more structured version of their adventure in The Legends of Vox Machina. Within their first novel, Critical Role: Vox Machine - Kith & Kin, author Marieke Nijkamp gives fans an intimate look at siblings Vex and Vax's early adventures and upbringing. How does this add to the stories we know of these two who continued on to join Vox Machina?
Critical Role: Vox Machina - Kith & Kin picks up with the twins three years before the events of Vox Machina. The story jumps right in with detailed forest combat, Vax risking himself for a death blow on a giant spider as they make their way to Westruun. Even those who only have a passing knowledge of the characters will be painted a vivid picture of who Vax and Vex are in this encounter, as well as the sibling love that's prevalent underneath the quick verbal jabs and eye rolls. While they have so much in common the differences that they have are also highlighted: Vax's love of the big city and a chance to cut someone's purse strings, and Vex's comfortability with the forest, being away from judging eyes, and of course her favorite traveling companion Trinket the bear.
After a series of events in Westruun involving a scorned noble with too much money, a bargain for a contract to be reversed, and a story of a ring that should go… missing, Vex and Vax find new employment through The Clasp to a remote mining village in the Umbra Hills. Here the book takes a drastic turn during a midnight attack of ash ridden undead, which splits up Vex and Vax and throws them into two different sides of a long-running feud.
Vex is rescued by the Shadewatch and brought to the village of Jorenn where the Shademaster protects her people with a magical ring, cursing the villagers who created the undead blight that they need protection from. Vex needs to learn to be ok being on her own, as well as being in an environment she's not as comfortable with. Vax on the other hand wakes up deep underground, saved by the miners who curse both the Shademaster and the people of Jorenn for kicking them out of their homes and hunting them down. As each twin is fed a different side of the story the matter of the truth becomes a mystery presented to the reader.
After being told almost heavy-handed how the twins have a city mouse/country mouse dynamic for them to be thrown off edge not only being alone but in an uncomfortable situation offers a lot of character growth moments. Given access to the internal monologue of Vex'alia, we share with her the "living nightmare that she fought to keep at bay" as she continues to worry about her missing brother. Through the story, we see how their belief in themselves and each other allows them to not only grow but also see the world from each other's perspective.
In my introduction, I alluded to the more common 'black and white' nature of Dungeons & Dragons. When every adventure is largely improvised it's often easiest to create that clear delineation that the party is on the side of good, and those that they encounter have nefarious means. With each twin getting fed the "right" side of the story it creates a glorious shade of grey. Each new face that Vex and Vax meet tells stories of the tense situation and the losses they've suffered but also shares wholesome compassion with Vex and Vax even as newcomers. It's hard to believe that anyone is the bad guy. Even the miners have to agree "[The Shademaster] didn't lie to the people who believed in her, not precisely. She kept them safe, at the expense of our lives and our homes." Everyone is keenly aware of how difficult this situation is for all involved, but they all know it has to end one way or another.
This storytelling is so fresh in the world of Tal'Dorei and gives the characters chances to split up that normally get highly discouraged through regular tabletop play. This mystery immediately pulls the reader in as perspectives continually shift and your own assumptions are pulled into doubt. While you're certainly getting more of the story than Vex or Vax hearing each side of the story individually, the reader will still be able to relate to the twins as they attempt to determine the truth.
"Trinket, aware of the attention, opened one eye and adjusted his position slightly so that Aswin had an easier job scratching his chin"
A special mention needs to be made for how adorably descriptive Trinket, Vex's bear companion is written. On the attack Trinket will crunch through bones and squash the undead, but when just around Vex'allia or the young Aswin, Trinket is more akin to a teddy bear. Trinket steals almost every scene that he's in with this adorable attitude and much like Aswin, I too now want a pet bear.
Sprinkled among chapters of rooftop chases, worried plan-making, and high fantasy adventuring we're also treated to a more involved look at Vex and Vax's upbringing. The story here hops through the years beginning in the Prologue twelve years before the story. Through these flashbacks of twelve years ago, eleven years ago, nine years ago, etc we see the struggles the twins faced through being torn away from Byroden to their father's compound in Syngorn, and what led them to leave. Checking in every few years is never as much about what's going on in the world around the twins but how they developed their "us against the world" protectiveness of one another that we see in present-day and throughout the Vox Machina campaign.
This includes some lovely scenes of the twins comforting each other as Vax explains "I want you to remember that there's beauty in this world and you deserve to see it. Besides, our father's heritage isn't all prejudice and arrogance. It's creation too." These chapters are always difficult to read, hearing of the pain and hopelessness of their situation, but it's also uplifting knowing where those trials and tribulations led them later in life. These chapters work equal part informative and part cliffhanger as they tend to arrive just as you're quickly turning over the page to know the fate of one of our heroes.
Coming into Critical Role: Vox Machina - Kith & Kin I was prepared for magic and swords and the wild adventures of Vex'ahlia and Vax'ildan but instead I was given a small town adventure, a morally questionable situation, and flashbacks keenly focused on what made these two adventurers who they are. For a Critical Role fan wanting to learn more about these two important characters, it's a fun and fast-paced read, but even those interested in some light fantasy reading could enjoy this, or even use it as a stepping stone into the media empire that is now Critical Role.
Get This Book If...
- You want to learn more about Vex and Vax from Vox Machina
- You're looking for your next fantasy read
- You enjoy a book with a bit of a mystery
Avoid This Book If...
- You have no interest in the world of Critical Role
- You're not much of a reader
TechRaptor reviewed Critical Role: Vox Machine - Kith & Kin with a copy provided by the publisher