The Adventure Zone: The Balance Arc

wfpebjnpA few years ago, two friends of mine told me about a podcast that they thought I’d enjoy. It was called The Adventure Zone, and it was a relatively new podcast by the McElroy brothers – at the time they told me about it, only the first 2-3 episodes had been released. Now, I knew of the McElroy brothers – I’d heard of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, their famous podcast, but never gotten around to checking it out. But I didn’t know anything about them – not their humor, not their personalities, nothing. And yet, The Adventure Zone sounded like a great hook – three brothers and their dad playing Dungeons and Dragons together, and just generally being silly and having fun while doing it. And after a little bit of a rough first episode that dragged a bit, I started thoroughly enjoying the show. Oh, it was silly and gleefully childish (the first episode ends with a character convincing guards to not come in by explaining how aroused he is about the man he just killed), but I giggled a lot, and started enjoying the show, slight and silly though it might be.

Cut to nearly three years later – earlier this week, in fact – when I kept refreshing my podcast reader all morning, waiting for the final episode to drop. An episode, mind you, that was over two-and-a-half hours. And as I jumped in (at the first possible chance I got), I laughed, sure…but that silly, goofy, childish podcast? Damned if it didn’t somehow make my room really dusty – no idea how that happened – to the point where it even affected the goofy, big-hearted family recording it.

PetalsWhat happened during those three years? How did this ridiculous, silly, slight podcast become something incredible – not only my favorite podcast of all time, but one of my favorite stories in recent years, and a constant source of joy, humor, and light through good times and bad?

The answer to that is complicated, and to be honest, there’s maybe no single moment that I can point to that nails down that transition. Sure, there’s the “Petals to the Metal” arc, whose multi-episode climax takes the form of a massive Mad Max/Fast and Furious style car race that had my jaw dropped in glee with every new episode over the weeks that it unfolded; yes, there’s some of the reveals in “The Crystal Kingdom,” where it started to become more obvious how deep and complex this story was getting, and just how invested I was getting in these characters; and, sure, there was the astonishing, mind-blowing “11th Hour,” that might still be my favorite arc in the campaign, with an approach that found the boys trapped and learning from their mistakes. In other words, it’s not as though this podcast changed overnight; its evolution was gradual, to the point where it could sneak up on you without warning – and did so, often. But if you really want to understand what made The Adventure Zone turn into something great, you need to understand a little bit about the McElroys.

By the time The Adventure Zone ended, the McElroys’ fame had grown exponentially, to the point where they need far less introduction than they did then. But what you mainly need to know is that the McElroys’ brand of comedy is largely defined by its positivity and welcoming nature. That’s not to say that they’re absurdly cheery or optimistic always; it’s more that they refrain from judging people, indulge heavily in silliness and absurdity, and make an effort to simply be open to the world and those around them. BaseSetThey’re the sort of people who realized they didn’t want their fantasy world to be just straight white guys, and so between all of them, gay characters were introduced of both genders, as well as a trans character, all passing without much more than a remark, and no judgment. They’re the sort of people who did their best to never describe people more than they had to, enjoying the benefits of an audio medium to allow people to identify with characters in whatever way they wanted, and never judging anyone’s as being uncanonical. They’re the sort of people who abandoned a long set-up joke for fear of it being interpreted as cruel or offensive, and found a way around it while being open about both the original joke and why they dodged in. In other words, they’re big-hearted, kind individuals, all of whom have sharp senses of humor, wicked comic timing, and kindness to spare.

And as you might imagine, having people with this level of heart and empathy means that, as the campaign continued, every single person involved found themselves more and more empathetic to their characters and the story. Of course, it doesn’t help that as DM for the campaign, Griffin delivered an absolute knockout of a plot, with no shortage of astonishing reveals, compelling foreshadowing and hints, and a surprisingly long-form game that I’m only now starting to appreciate (now that the campaign is over, I’ve started listening again, and realizing that Griffin started laying seeds for all of this within the first five episodes). But what made The Adventure Zone special wasn’t just Griffin’s Bondingstory, great though it was; it was the way he shaped it around the input from his family, from the critical (Justin’s choice to have Taako not only be gay, but strike up a relationship with a most unlikely choice; Travis’s heartfelt backstory for Magnus; the surprisingly touching revelation of how Merle spends his off time) to the supremely goofy. To say more would be to get into spoiler territory (and yes, there are incredible spoilers for this show, and reveals that I wouldn’t ever want to rob someone of hearing for the first time), but much of the joy came from realizing that Griffin had listened to absurd, silly comments by his family and crafted them into plot threads, shaping his world around them.

In other words, The Adventure Zone was truly collaborative storytelling of the best kind, with Griffin creating a world and turning his family loose in it, and letting them wreak all sorts of havoc. From towns populated by hundreds of Tom Bodettes to cigar-chomping Phandalinheroes named Boy Land, from quests to understand the power of Mexican cuisine to failed youth pastors, The Adventure Zone lived and breathed in its details, and it was there that the show always hooked you in, as the McElroys would cackle with glee over the freedom they had. And then, just when you’d be caught up in an adventure, or cracking up over a turn for the absurd, one of them – and you could never be sure who it was – could hit you with a gutpunch, and you realized just how much these characters had come to life for you, even in such a short time. Yes, I loved the plot of this all, and the craft that went into it – how Griffin could simultaneously keep an overarching plot together while giving them total freedom in the individual arcs – was always astonishing. But what I truly loved was getting to hear McElroys bounce off of each other in every imaginable way, and the joy they all brought to the project.

The McElroys have said that, in some ways, they regret letting this campaign run so long – that it’s made people wonder what sort of form the podcast could take after this, and left them scrambling a bit.But in the end, the length of the Balance arc was the most satisfying thing about it, as we slowly immersed ourselves in this world, and laughed and chuckled and had fun, and slowly – and without realizing it – got invested in it all. That a show that started with such silliness and anarchy could end with me tearing up so many times shouldn’t be possible – but it did.

So, you want to listen? A few pieces of advice:

  1. If you just want to sample a couple of episodes that give you a sense of the show at its best, check out either “The Boston Stunt Spectacular” or the “MaxFunCon Live Episode”. Both are standalone episodes that require basically no major knowledge of the show, and give you a great sense of the characters and the rhythms of the show. They’re also both absolutely fantastic episodes – I’d recommend the Stunt Spectacular and then MaxFunCon, in that order, but both not only have me laughing uncontrollably, but show off both Griffin’s ability to tell great stories and the crew’s ability to mix excitement, comedy, and banter.
  2. If you decide to jump right in – great! But one piece of advice: instead of listening to the full pilot episode, start with episode 1.5, which is a “supercut” of the pilot. I almost bailed on the show the first time I listened to the long pilot; at this point, I enjoy it a lot more, but it definitely drags and takes a long time to get going.
  3. Give it at least four episodes, if you can. I’d say the show starts to really find its comic rhythms and footing in episode 2, and by episode 3-4, Griffin has started to leave behind the D&D practice campaign and get into his own ideas, and that’s when the show truly starts to grow.
  4. Don’t skip “The The Adventure Zone Zone” episodes – they sound goofy and terrible, but if you’re enjoying the series, you’ll love them – they’re a great window into the creative processes that go into the show, and they spoil nothing, as long as you listen to them when they fell or later.
  5. Do skip the episodes with the Flop House crew. YMMV, of course, but I personally hated both pretty deeply – unfunny, uncharming, and really lacking everything I love about the show.

All art, except for the podcast logo, comes from The Adventure Zine, a collection of fanart which was created to raise money for the Facing Hunger food bank. 


Sent for Life, by Jason Turri / * ½

51gc2uq-m6l-_sy346_One of the common issues I’ve started to see among independent authors, especially those on their first or second book, is not knowing how to balance ambition and plotting. There’s a sense sometimes that they think to themselves, Well, I have all of these great ideas – why not put all of them into the same book? But the result is often an overstuffed, jumbled read, one that leaves you wishing that the author had focused on any one or two of the ideas in depth instead of throwing them all into the same book and doing none of them justice.

Such is the case with Sent for Life, Jason Turri’s debut novel, which follows a young scientist as he creates a vaccine for a deadly disease sweeping the world, gets framed for murder, discovers a secret cloning operation, gets told that he’s going to be sent to an alien world, discovers a conspiracy behind that launch, discovers a separate secret plan on that alien world, helps to save that world from a deadly asteroid – and all of this (and plenty more, including a few twists) happens in 300 pages. If that sounds like a lot to cover, well, it is. And every time you think the book is about to dig into a single plot thread, it swerves onto something new, until I really got frustrated figuring out who the plot’s villains were supposed to be, and why it would spend so long on things that it had no interest in paying off.

That world-shaping disease? Barely matters to the book. The framing of him for murder, and the slowly uncovered motivation of the villain behind it? Discarded as soon as the character gets ready to move onto the alien world. And again and again and again, the book jumps from plot to plot. There’s something admirable and enjoyable about a book that’s so ambitious and eager to do so much, but as a reader, there’s also a sense of frustration as you deal with a book that has no idea what it wants to be about. (That even becomes more of an issue as the book randomly breaks from its first-person narration without warning at times, without rhyme or reason.)

Not helping things is that our hero is…well, “flawed” would be putting it mildly, and it’s never quite clear how much we’re supposed to dislike him. If the answer is “a huge amount,” that would be great; between his habit of describing every female in terms of her looks (all are “beautiful” in various ways) and his constant whiny, wheedling pressure for all of them to sleep with him regardless of their interest level, he’s undoubtedly a slimeball. But that’s pretty tame compared to his behavior when he gets to the alien world, where he introduces drinking, drugs, and wet t-shirt contests for his own entertainment among a species that knows none of these things. Far from being funny or endearing, it makes him a fairly repellent figure, and his ego as he approaches basically every situation makes him hard to root for.

There’s some interesting ideas in Sent for Life – any number of which could have made a single really fun book. But putting them all together, and the sheer revolting nature of its hero, really keeps the book from being something I can recommend. I think Turri has great ideas, and he seems like the kind of author who can learn from his mistakes – hopefully he can see the issues with Sent for Life and learn from them in the future.


Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****

This is the sixth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and Wolves of the Calla (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”

Also, this time I’m going to have a special book-only spoiler section called “The Clearing at the End of the Path,” because there’s one aspect of this book that I wanted to discuss at length, but didn’t want to spoil for people who hadn’t yet read the book. (If you’ve read it, you probably know what it is.)


As I approached Song of Susannah in this re-read, I’m not going to lie; I was a bit anxious. Over the years, Song of Susannah has been held up as the nadir of the series – a mess, the point at which the meta commentary became too much, the book where King’s ambition stretched too far. And in some ways, I’ll grant some of those points. There’s no denying that Song of Susannah sometimes feels like too many books in one, nor that it feels…well, weird. And that’s saying something, given how strange this series is already, and how disjointed the books are almost by design. But more than most, Song of Susannah swings for the fences, going between the surreal to the action-packed, from the nightmarish to the esoteric, often without even a hint of a change coming. And that doesn’t even get into the main thrust of the narrative, which somehow has to explain a truly baffling pregnancy that…well, I can’t even begin to explain this one to you, because King doesn’t quite either, despite the number of pages he devotes to trying to hash it all out.

And yet. (Come on. You knew an “and yet” was coming.)

And yet, by god, broken down to its individual pieces, Song of Susannah WORKS. There’s no denying that King’s ambition cranks up dozens of notches here (and I’ll have lots to say about the major one – and the most controversial one – in a book spoiler section below, before I get to series spoilers), but it’s easy to forget how much King has a way of making even the most bizarre and dysfunctional concepts somehow work when you’re lost in his worlds. On paper, most of Song of Susannah shouldn’t work, but as we immerse ourselves into the heart and soul of these characters, and King brings his worlds to vivid, intense life, it’s hard to remember your complaints while you’re carried along.

More than that, Song of Susannah has some truly great scenes waiting for you, most notably a climactic section that may rank as one of the most disturbing, horrific things King’s ever written – no small feat, that. But it makes sense, because King’s horror usually has at least one foot in the real world, one foot keeping things grounded. But in the world of the Dark Tower, all bets are off – there’s no reality to keep it tethered. And what results is genuinely horrifying and disturbing, with some of the darkest, grimmest images I can remember King writing – an ending (setting aside the coda, which I’ll address in those book spoilers) that leaves you dying for more in a great way. More than that, even with the weird, sometimes disjointed approach that finds us sometimes leaping from scene to scene, King retains that command of momentum and pacing that makes him one of the best writers around – and that goes double here, as King barrels us toward the ending of this series.

But maybe what I really love most about Song of Susannah is the way that it makes King’s ambition for this series plain, crystallizing something that’s been a theme for some time. Song of Susannah, in other words, is the book where it becomes most clear that in many ways, this is King’s most ambitious and career-defining work, in his own mind, and that the book is as much as about him as an author as it is these characters. It’s something that’s been a part of the series since the beginning (if you remember, it’s one reason why I advocate for the original cut of The Gunslinger, because it makes King’s evolution as a writer part of the text of the series), and even more so over the past few, as the ideas of story and storytelling has become more and more intrinsic to the plot of the series as a whole. The idea of stories – why we tell them, how they inspire or define us, how they motivate us – is only more and more relevant as the Tower series progresses, and Song of Susannah starts turning that from subtext to text, as characters grapple with their roles in stories that they had no idea they were a part of.

Does Song of Susannah spend alternately too long on some explanations (Mia/Susannah, I’m looking at you) and not enough on others (how Susannah knows the importance of a street preacher, for instance)? Undoubtedly. Does it suffer from “middle book” syndrome a bit, bridging between the setup of Wolves of the Calla and the payoff of The Dark Tower without sometimes knowing how to define itself? Most definitely. And is there a bit of me that resents spending so much time in this penultimate book of a great series on one of its weirdest, most nonsensical plot threads, to say nothing of the fact that most of it is devoted to maybe my least favorite member of the ka-tet? (Again, I’ll get into why in the spoiler section below.) Yup.

But for all of that, so many of the individual pieces of Song of Susannah work so well that I can overlook that. Any book that features that horrific sequence in the Dixie Pig, the fantastic shoot-out, that eerie scene where they meet a sort of god, and our first glimpses at what lays in the blasted lands near the Tower…when your book has all of that and more, I’m okay with the weaknesses, especially because all of them work so well thematically, and they’re so well told. And more than anything, when a book leaves me this ready to jump into the final volume, even after I’ve already read it…well, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?


The Clearing at the End of the Path (book spoilers follow – no series spoilers) Continue reading “Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****”

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle / *****

9780812995947One of the things I most love about Victor LaValle’s work – and there’s a lot there to love – is the way he so ably mixes complex, relevant themes with original, strange tales on genre fiction, allowing the two to play off of each other. From the racial explorations and secret societies to Big Machine to the class and mental explorations of The Devil in Silver, LaValle grapples with difficult, important questions, all while crafting narratives that subvert your expectations and embrace their genre roots wholeheartedly. LaValle’s most recent – and most celebrated – work, The Ballad of Black Tom, did both of these things, telling a Lovecraftian horror story that also served as a critique of Lovecraft’s toxic racism.

All of which to say, it’s not a surprise that The Changeling has more on its mind than simply a crackling good genre tale, though it’s undeniably that. Nor is it surprising that the novel speaks to concerns of race, of ethnicity, of class, and even of toxic masculinity. What is surprising, though – and part of what makes The Changeling so excellent – is that LaValle’s focus is on something as intimate, heartfelt, and earnest as fatherhood. Yes, LaValle is still fascinated by bigger social issues – there’s a huge way in which the book is about fatherhood in the face of gender expectations of our modern world – but at its core, this is about something universal and fundamentally human.

It’s also, of course, a fantastic piece of genre fiction, one that starts simply enough – with the meeting of a boy and a girl – before slowly turning into something far darker and stranger. It’s the story of a rare book dealer named Apollo, his librarian wife, Emma, and their first child. It’s a wondrous moment in any parents’ life, but as Apollo basks and glows with pride, Emma starts to feel less and less comfortable and more frightened – and then things take a horrific, nightmarish turn.

What follows is a strange, unsettling journey into something that lays beneath the polished veneer of modern parenthood – into fears and anxieties, into toxic relationships and vicious misogyny, and even into old legends and fairy tales. And if you know the significance of the title, some of it won’t be a surprise, but much still will…but what ultimately results is almost a dark, primal fairy tale, one in which archetypes battle and morals are unclear, where lessons are taught and the cruelty of the world is laid bare. That it somehow manages to be a fairy tale and simultaneously an intensely contemporary story is only further testament to LaValle’s skill and ability to mix genre.

Just as he did in Big Machine and The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle effortlessly swings between grounded, realistic fiction and strange, inexplicable horror, horror that’s all the more effective for how abrupt his shifts are. Because, yes, The Changeling is a fairy tale about parenting, but it’s also a horror story, both about the evil that humans do and about something darker and more primal – and it’s quite possible that the human evil is far, far worse, especially as LaValle carefully positions it into our modern world (when one vile character starts spouting off about “beta males” and “cucks” late in the book, it feels horribly inevitable).

But what makes The Changeling work is that more than any of those things, it’s the story of a man who loves his son and would do anything for his family. And that lets the book hold up all of the social commentary, all of the thoughtful points, all of the allegories, because more than any of that, it works as a story of a man driven by love – a character we care about, and whose trials and challenges resonate with anyone who’s ever feared for their child.