Kith and Kin is the debut novel based on the world and characters of Critical Role. For the uninitiated, Critical Role is a long-running livestream show where a group of voice actors (now arguably more famous for this endeavour than their other work) play Dungeons & Dragons. It has become something of a phenomenon, being endorsed by Wizards of the Coast (the publishers of D&D), producing sourcebooks for the roleplaying game, and having an animated series commissioned off the back of its success. The rise of the show is tied intimately with the popularity boom of D&D’s fifth edition and the proliferation of roleplaying game ‘actual play’ podcasts and streaming shows.
Kith and Kin provides an interesting case study of the virtues and hurdles for licensed works. Such media is coming to an enthusiastic audience seeking a very specific package of content; fulfilling that craving can be a lucrative revenue stream provided the property stays reasonably popular and relevant. However, publishers are inclined to cynically throw together low-quality works because the readership is considered undiscerning and eager to buy literally anything with the right branding.
And then there are the challenges that are posed to the writer. Authors can be called upon to write fiction for properties that were originally made in other media, and whose universes might have developed intimately tied to that media. Film-to-novel adaptation seems relatively simple, but for games the original content is primarily designed to be playable – which can require compromises to narratively compelling world-building. To have the abilities and parameters of all the characters statistically plotted out can sabotage drama, or else the writer risks contradicting the source material by depicting something not achievable in-game. Furthermore, with any licensed property it can be challenging to write an engaging story if the original IP is not thought-through enough to sustain long-form narrative elaboration.
All of this is to say, how does Kith and Kin shape up as the first novel based on Critical Role?
There’s no getting around that the writing must navigate some trite world-building inherited from the source material. The protagonists (player characters from the show) have silly fantasy names with unnecessary apostrophes in them. They are from an insular refuge of haughty elves. Undead creatures meandering around a frontier town are dubbed ‘ash walkers’. This could be charitably called ‘archetypal’ though I think the phrase ‘aggressively derivative post-Tolkienian fantasy pablum of the worst variety that would not pass muster in originally commissioned modern fantasy publishing and could only be sustained by a lucrative license’ fits better. The world of Exandria (sigh…) borrows wholesale from the Forgotten Realms – a fiction series closely associated to D&D that serves as the default setting for its current edition – and inherits all the problems of a generic and incoherent setting that reads as though it were designed to have a wiki written about it.
This ultimately throws into relief the unique challenge posed by adapting roleplaying game material by way of livestream performance (a very specific media product) into straight fiction. The core appeal of Critical Role is not the compelling world. Fans might espouse the quality of the story in the streaming show, but this ignores the crucial fact that it is a show about a group of friends hanging out. There are sizeable para-social dynamics at play with the audience. Every episode opens with jokes and chatter from the performers. There are frequent and expected breaks in character. The performers, more so even than their performance, is one of the most compelling aspects of the Critical Role experience. It is a show about people at play, which this completely contained fiction does not seek to emulate.
Are Vax’ildan and Vex’ahlia such entrancing characters when they are not ‘Vax’ildan and Vex’ahlia being played by Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey’? Not especially. Is the world of Exandria a rich tapestry in which to tell a story when it isn’t serving as a grab-bag of fantasy elements to facilitate an RPG sandbox? Absolutely not.
Aside from the larger question of how the book stands as another tendril of the Critical Role entity, Kith and Kin needs to function as a successful book in and of itself. On this front, Marieke Nijkamp is a workmanlike writer: communication is largely effective if unchallenging, occasionally humorous, leaning on explicit statement rather than implication, and characterisation tends towards the transparent and monodirectional. Whilst not revolutionary, it is practical and appropriate for its intended audience. There are issues, however.
Peppering the prose are intermittently awkward phrases that breach immersion. Some have the air of quirks, mostly appearing as preferred sentence structures that jar through over-repetition. Nijkamp likes to establish ambivalence by stating something and then immediately contradicting it, which comes with some decent precedent as a literary technique (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’). Here, the technique is over-used, especially when establishing foundational elements of character and setting.
On top of this is a tendency towards (unintentionally?) comic overemphasis in the same turn: ‘…the city that rose up in front of them was that of a dream—or a nightmare.’ The bluntly over-emphatic suggests a lack of faith in the reader’s ability to parse the tone of the prose, which is strange since Nijkamp is otherwise so unerringly functional and clear in her communication. Or else the assumption is a lack of genre awareness from the reader, which seems unlikely for licensed genre fiction. When an early paragraph closes with ‘She was happy, and nothing could ever change that’, the reader is surely never meant to take this literally but rather to infer the opposite, but the opposite remains an utterly perfunctory statement: of course, the character will confront unhappiness and adversity.
Clumsily narrated emotions are a recurrent but not universal issue with Kith and Kin. The most engaging sections are undoubtedly those that flashback to the twins’ painful upbringing in the isolationist elven sanctuary of Syngorn. There is some emotional reality to the dynamic with their neglectful father, the web of double-standards from a prejudiced community that obliges them to fit in but denies them any possibility to do so, and the feelings of resistance mixed with inadequacy as they grow more powerful and independent but rub up against a social order that outweighs them. There is consistently more time spent on a variety of developing emotional states from both characters in these sections and they are better expressed as interior feelings that bubble to the surface as they try (and fail) to put up a front in elven society.
This contrasts sharply to the ‘present’ storyline where Vex and Vax exist in emotional stasis – presumably so that they are consistent with their depiction in Critical Role. The text simply repeats or rewords the sentiment ‘I will do anything for my sister/brother’ (delete as appropriate) ad nauseum. There is far more telling than showing in these sections. This stasis poses a conundrum about the nature of the book as a prequel. If Nijkamp can write more dynamic younger versions of the characters in the flashbacks to contextualise their adult selves in the narrative, why can’t this be done with the adult versions as they stand as context for their appearance in the livestream game? Both are meant to be developing towards the status of the characters in Critical Role and the driving appeal of a prequel is surely to see how these characters came into being, not just to see an ancillary adventure with preformed templates.
This leads us aptly to the issue of redundancy, arguably the largest vice of the book. Emotions and opinions are restated with a galling frequency. This ranges from clear attempts to hammer home themes and character traits (did you know Vax likes his daggers and is at home in the city? Did you know Vex is good with her bow and is at home in the wilds? Did you know that each would do anything for the other?) to editorial indiscretions that ought to have been weeded out. Within the space of two brief paragraphs were these two lines:
‘…for every creature they fought and killed, there came another and another.’
‘Killing one ashen corpse only meant that two others appeared in its place.’
The two forms of redundancy tend to aggregate in effect as they recur, even when some are clearly intentional points meant to draw the reader’s attention, others the result of an editor’s lack of attention.
I would not usually be so granular in a review, but these are points I want to bear out to try and reconstruct the brief and edit for this project. I don’t think the selective quotes above give a comprehensive view of the work. The impression of the whole is of a good draft, rather than an entirely polished manuscript. Issues of a phrase or sentence structure lodging in an author’s head, clumsy overemphasis, or narration over description are inevitable in the writing or rewriting of any manuscript. Publishing a book is more of a collective endeavour than is often given credit for, and it is the job of editors, proofreaders and indentured friends or relatives to catch little quirks like this and advise how to buff them out. This reads like a book for which there was limited time or resources for checking over the text.
In so far as I want to speculate about the thoroughness of the edit, it is the brief that lingers as a hazily defined but pervasive influence over the text. The licensed author must contend with some very strict stipulations about the form and content of the book, and I can’t help but wonder how many of the overstated, repetitious, or egregiously blunt phrases that stuck out at me were mandated by the licensee. The comparison best evoked is of the latter-day Star Wars films, where the production has long abandoned a core appeal of the originals (well-executed novelty) in favour of insipid internal references.
This certainly explains the dropping of silly place names that opens the book (a convention otherwise abandoned by all but the most regressive and antiquated of fantasy novels), but also the pointed drumming of features that I know to either be from Critical Role specifically or the DNA of Dungeons & Dragons. Vex was the chief haggler in the show so we get tedious detail on shopping to drill home that identifiable trait. We learn, forcibly, that she rarely gets lost – almost as though she has the ability ‘Natural Explorer’ specifying that she can’t get lost in her favoured terrain, as per page 91 of the Player’s Handbook. I single out Vex simply because she has a chapter open in the single most painful example of the book jabbing at me with its insistence that I recall her character is RANGER in CRITICAL ROLE, a show based on PROPRIETARY GAME DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
‘Vex had more misgivings about his plan than arrows in her quiver.’
When I was taken out of the prose by a ghastly line like that, was it because the licensee demanded I be reminded with insufficient context or by reason of reading something based on a D&D livestream? I can only speculate but the pandering to brand signifiers is the single most persistent and irksome of the deficiencies of the text.
Who, then, is this book for? I alluded above that the core audience for this book will be fans of Critical Role: a truism, but one that overlooks that this is also another way into the property for those initially sceptical about committing hundreds of hours to watching the internet show. A single book with little nominal backstory, because it is a prequel, is a far more digestible prospect.
I’ve spent a great deal of time here enumerating what I found to be deficiencies, but I do not think that the book is remarkably bad. The ways in which the book fails are largely more interesting than the ways it succeeds. The assumption that readers of licensed material are undiscerning betrays the fact there are many licensed works that are notorious for their lack of quality and are decried as such by the fanbase. Conversely, some ancillary material reaches such acclaim that it is integrated back into the original medium of the property in some form or other: for example, Disney cherry-picking the most popular bits of the Star Wars Expanded Universe for selective reintegration into their version of the franchise.
Is Kith and Kin a travesty that has failed to live up to the promise of the Critical Role media strategy? Is it a shining gem, otherwise occluded from broader acclaim because it is tied to a pre-existing IP? Neither. It is a largely functional and uncontroversial adventure yarn starring characters from a popular web series. It is occasionally hamstrung by clumsy prose, which suggests it needs more editorial attention, and unsubtle masturbation of its property tie-ins. It will not reinvent or reconceptualise the property, nor has it sullied or embarrassed the brand. The significance of the book remains that it is the first step in this new branch of a hydra-like multimedia strategy rather than anything the book says.
As to who will enjoy it, the pre-established fans are an easy sell and Kith and Kin will certainly satiate cravings for more sweet, sweet content. I may be a snob about the majority of Disney’s self-referential Star Wars material, but there is no doubt that it remains largely popular. Likewise, realistically Kith and Kin will be enjoyed by a significant proportion of the Critical Role fanbase, and we gain nothing by begrudging them this. It does not need to be literary and structurally airtight for someone to derive pleasure from it.
I have a harder time recommending this book to newcomers though. Not because it represents too low a standard for someone uninvested to sample but because I don’t think Kith and Kin really communicates a lot of the core appeal of Critical Role. It presents a broadly enjoyable archetypal fantasy adventure but without the context and scaffold of the show, this reads as a conceptually dated rendition of fantasy writing. It has a lot of the conventions of boorish fantasy novels and D&D tie-ins from the 1980s with a brush of modern social values that make things (thankfully) more palatable. If you are enthusiastic about similar properties like Greyhawk, Dragonlance or The Forgotten Realms, there is so much more on offer that will better capture your imagination.