REVIEW: NPCs (SPELLS, SWORDS, & STEALTH #1)
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 I started out feeling rather mixed about this book's core premise, but felt a little more sold on it by the end and ultimately did enjoy my journey with this ragtag group of characters.
The cast is an interesting place to start because there are sort of two different sides to it. When things kick off we are introduced to a group of guys in the "real" world who have gathered to play a new edition of a tabletop RPG (something akin to Dungeons & Dragons). As their adventure begins, the four players unwittingly manage to get their characters killed in a rather silly way. Their DM (Dungeon Master or person who's running the game by managing quests, enemies, rules etc.) informs them that they should switch to their backup characters so that the story can move forward. I never really did warm up to this group of players and I frankly found the moments where we check in with them to be an annoyance that took me out of the story. Fortunately, things switch pretty quickly to a motley crew of "NPCs" (Non Player Characters). Making up this party of unlikely heroes are Grumph a half-orc barkeep, Eric, a human guardsman who's not particularly good at his job, Gabrielle, a lovely human woman who gets kidnapped by goblins often (on Eric's watch), and Thistle, a surly gnome with a dark past, but a kind heart. Even though I found them and their backstories immediately intriguing, I had a hard time connecting with them since I mistakenly thought that they were the backup characters for the people in our world. To me, this cheapened their arcs and made their personalities confusing given the context that they were being controlled by the players (which, in fact, they aren't). Once I figured out that these characters were somehow sentient entities within the fantasy setting of the board game, I became much more invested in their personal growth and shared adventures, but also felt very confused about how they were operating on their own. Not only were the characterizations compelling, but the personal discoveries that each party member makes as they try to figure out what role/job to take on were fun to read through.
As I mentioned, I ran into a bit of confusion when it came to who the Real World vs. the Game World. I think I may have a double standard since I never really have any issues with stories where a video game NPC suddenly gains autonomy and goes on an adventure (like in the movie FREE GUY) even though that doesn't make much more sense than it happening in a board game. Now, why I didn't immediately assume that this might be some kind of Jumanji situation is totally on me. Even though it is made clear that the module the players are using is more "realistic" and that should have been a big clue for me, I guess the way that the regular world and this fantasy world interconnect could have just been made a bit clearer earlier on since I was hung up on the what, how, and why of certain things for a large part of the story.
Confusion aside. There's a fun adventure that kept me going. Do I still kind of wish that the events of the story weren't happenings within the setting of a tabletop module? Yes, but there were some interesting twists toward the end that may ultimately lead to more payoff with these story elements later in the series. Structurally, things are set up in a straightforward enough way outside of the tabletop elements. The characters find themselves in a position where they need to take over the quest given to the four player characters who die within Grumph's tavern. Along the way they try to mold themselves into real adventurers and gain a reputation that they can use to convince the kingdom of their authenticity. There are demon hoards to defeat, goblin cultures to understand, and gods to gain favor with. There's a lot of classic fantasy fun to be found and though none of it is necessarily groundbreaking, the execution of it all just worked really well for me, especially since it is all connected so closely with each character's personal arc. I also appreciated all the fun action scenes that were sprinkled in.
Things didn't seem all that interesting in regard to the world building when I first began the book. There's a bunch of nondescript guys in a nondescript house, playing a tabletop game set in a very typical fantasy world. For a good chunk of the story, I found the characters and their journey to be the main anchor for my enjoyment. Things do get more interesting when it came to the worldbuilding as the adventure continued though. Even though I was distracted and confused by the tabletop elements, I was still entertained by the idea of non-player, non-hero characters wandering through a world that is designed for players/adventurers to explore. An early example of this early on is how the goblins behave and the in-world explanation for why and how adventurers are always fighting them. There's some nice variety in the places that the party ventures to. The different cities and towns each felt unique with their own rules and backstories. The forests in between were aptly enchanting and there is a "dungeon" of sorts at the end that served as a fitting location for the story's climax. The idea of this tabletop module being somehow real or alive in some way also grew on me as we went. I felt like some interesting bits of lore get introduced near the end which tied it all together better and certainly left some intrigue as to where the author will bring these characters next.
I would say that the audiobook is a very serviceable way to consume the story. I wasn't massively blown away by the narration, but the voice work for the different characters was quite good. I felt like the somewhat dry delivery of the prose was actually a good match for the tone of the writing as well.
I think that this is a fun romp of a fantasy novel that any fantasy lover is likely to enjoy. If you are a fan of tabletop gaming, then you will likely appreciate this even more than I did, but I think many who are not into that scene will still find plenty to like here. I don't know if I'll be continuing with the series, but I'm glad I joined the gang for this adventure at least.
(+) Very strong characterization for the "NPCs"
(+) Lots of fun action scenes
(+) Worldbuilding that gets more interesting over time
(+) A surprising amount of character depth and development
(+) A good audio edition
(-) The tabletop aspects pulled me out of the other story elements at times
(-) I was confused about what was really going on for an embarrassingly long time