Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Go then, there are other worlds than these - Stephen King's The Dark Tower

The man in black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1)The Gunslinger by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers, is on a quest for the Dark Tower, a mysterious edifice that is the axle of worlds and holds all existence together. In this, the first volume, Roland pursues his nemesis across the Mohaine Desert. He follows the man in black's trail to a little town called Tull, then through more desert, encountering a boy named Jake from our world, and then into the mountains. Will Roland finally catch his arch-nemesis after years of pursuing him? And what means will he go to to achieve his goal?

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea it would shoot to the top of my favorites list. I wolfed down the first four books in three weeks, then entered an agonizing period of waiting the last three to be published. I think I've read the first four books five or six times each. The whole Dark Tower series, while on the surface a fantasy-western, is really the story of one man's obsession. In this volume, we get a hint of what Roland will do to get to the Dark Tower.

The writing is great and it warmed me up to Stephen King. Roland's world is unique. Part fantasy, part western, part post-apocalypse. While it's the first book in a series, it's quite satisfying to read on its own.  I think it's a testament to Stephen King's skill as a writer that even on my sixth or seventh go round, I was still hoping Roland wouldn't let Jake fall.

Some of the additions in the revised edition of this book were much-needed and brought the first book into synch with the later ones. Others seemed a little ham-fisted and took away a bit of Roland's mystique.

I like the idea a certain curmudgeonly Kansan reviewer proposed that the first edition of The Gunslinger and this one are from different cycles in Roland's quest.

The Drawing of the Three (The Dark Tower, Book 2)The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roland Deschain, fresh from the events of the Gunslinger, lies exhausted and poisoned on the shores of the ocean. In his delirium, he finds three doorways leading to our world and his new ka-tet. Will Roland survive long enough to bring his new ka-tet?

For my money, this is when the Dark Tower really started coming together. The first thing that happens really shocked the crap out of me. Damn lobstrosities! I had no idea what Roland was going to go through when I first opened this one.  After many re-readings, it seems really illogical that Roland let himself fall asleep so close to the ocean.

The new characters are interesting, as are Roland's relationships with them. Eddie Dean, funnyman and heroin addict, is pretty codependent at first, while Detta/Odetta, a multiple personality in a wheelchair, really causes some havoc. Jack Mort, well... you just better read it.

The action in this one is great. The gunfight in Andolini's is one of my favorite Stephen King scenes of all time. While the Gunslinger got me interested in the Dark Tower, this one grabbed me for the long haul.

The Waste Lands (The Dark Tower, #3)The Waste Lands by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After the events of the Drawing of the Three, Roland the Gunslinger has two people from our world along side him in his quest for the Dark Tower. However, he's also going mad because of a strange double set of memories in his head, memories of a boy he crossed the desert with...

The Waste Lands is probably my favorite Dark Tower book and epitomizes what I like about the series.    It drives home the notion that Roland's world is coming apart at the seams. It also gives us hints about what Roland was like before the world moved on, hints that will be further explored in Wizard and Glass.It's got the lost technology, lots of action, more bits about Roland's world, and makes Roland's ka-tet complete. The story of Jake in New York was well done. I even liked Oy the Billy-Bumbler. All the stuff that goes down in Lud had me dying to read the next book in the series. The ending would have made me furious had I been reading the Dark Tower books as they were published.

Even though I knew the whole deal with the key during my last reread, it was still a tense moment when the key didn't turn and the creature was loose in the haunted mansion in New York. I felt a single man tear threaten to roll down my cheek when Roland and Jake were reunited.

I also liked the Robert Howard reference, something I didn't catch the first time around.  It's a testament to Stephen King's skill that I was still a little worried about Jake in Lud, even though I've read the book a few times before.

Blaine is a pain and that's the truth.

Wizard and Glass (The Dark Tower, Book 4)Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a riddle contest with Blaine the Mono, Roland and his ka-tet continue on their quest for the Dark Tower. While camping, Roland reveals the story of his youth and his first love.

The best part of this was Roland's backstory. You see that he wasn't always the killing machine he's become and learn a lot more of the backstory of the series as well. Astute Stephen King readers will appreciate the world they go through after entering the thinny.

My opinion of Wizard and Glass has been colored somewhat by the passage of time. While I enjoyed the tale of Roland's first love and the confrontation with the Big Coffin Hunters, the flashback seemed about a hundred pages too long, like maybe Stephen King wasn't sure where he wanted the story to go next and decided to do some stalling.

That's not to say I don't like Wizard and Glass. It's just my least favorite of the first four Dark Tower books. It's still pretty good, though. The tension mounts as Roland and his young ka-tet head toward their inevitable conflict with the Big Coffin Hunters. It reminds me a lot of the battle between the Earps and the Cowboys in Tombstone.

The middle book of the Dark Tower is still a satisfying read, no matter what your opinion of the extended flashback. Roland's back story makes him an even more tragic figure than before.

The Wind Through the Keyhole (The Dark Tower, #8)The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While taking shelter from a storm along the Path of the Beam, Roland tells his ka-tet a story from his youth, about going up against a skin-man with Jamie DeCurry, in which he tells a frightened youth yet another story to bolster his courage...

First off, it pains me to give a Dark Tower book less than four stars but I thought this one was on par with Wizard and Glass.

The Wind Through the Keyhole is really three tales nested within one another. One features our beloved ka-tet, somewhere between the green city from the end of Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, the second a tale from Roland's youth, and a third a fable from Roland's world. Since The Dark Tower is one of my all time favorite works, my expectations were extremely high and this book didn't live up to them.

It isn't a bad book, though. Roland and the ka-tet are true to form. It didn't feel forced or tacked on. Rather, the stories felt natural and fleshed out both Roland's background and the mythology of Mid-World. I liked the Covenant Man quite a bit and the tale of the skin-man held my interest. If they weren't part of The Dark Tower, I probably would have rated them higher. Tim's tale reminded me of Eyes of the Dragon, one of Stephen King's more underrated works.

I guess my main gripe was that there wasn't much in the way of gunslinging action. Sure, Roland got to strut his stuff a bit but I was hoping for something to explain the ka-tet's transformation between books four and five.

Despite my gripes, I did enjoy The Wind Through the Keyhole and I was quite pleased that King left the ending open enough that he could stick another book or two in before the gang gets to the Calla.

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower 5)Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roland and his ka-tet of gunslingers ride into Call Bryn Sturgis, a town with a problem. Once every generation, a gang of marauders called The Wolves ride out of Thunderclap and steal half of the town's children. The ones that return come back roont, or brain-damaged. Can Roland and the others stop the Wolves before Susan gives birth to the demon in her womb?

It was a long wait between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Callah. Was it worth it? Well, does a horse piss where it pleases?

The main story of Wolves of the Calla is right out of The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai. The gunslingers ride into town, prepare the town, and settle the bad guys' hash. The secondary stories, of which there are several, are what make the book. You've got Father Callahan from Jake, Eddie, and Susannah's world and his fearsome burden, Black Thirteen. You've got someone in town helping the Wolves. You've got Roland and his arthritis. You've got Calvin Tower and the vacant lot containing the Rose. And most of all, you have Susannah's disturbing pregnancy.

The gang going todash was one of the more interesting parts of the book and something I'd forgotten about in the years since I read this book the first time. I devoured the book in a day and a half when it first came out so I must not have savored it. There were so many wrinkles to the story that I'd forgotten.

I love how the Man in Black doubled back and met Callahan at the Way Station while Roland and Jake were on in trail in The Gunslinger. In the revised edition of The Gunslinger, Roland contemplates putting his quest on hold for a few years and training Jake so he'd have another Gunslinger with him. Would they have met Callahan if they'd let the Man in Black get away? Tantalizing...

People say that the long flashback in Wizard and Glass fleshed out Roland's personality. I'd say watching Roland interact with the people of Callah Bryn Sturgis in this book went a lot farther in showing what kind of man Roland was before the world moved on.

I can't really say much more for fear of giving too many things away to people who have never read it. If you like the Dark Tower, this one is probably in the top three books of the series.

Song of Susannah (The Dark Tower, Book 6)Song of Susannah by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Susanna/Mia uses Black Thirteen and flees to New York to have her baby. Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan get the Manni to open the Unfound Door and end up in the wrong places. Can Roland and Eddie convince Calvin Tower to sell them the lot where the Rose grows? Can Jake and Callahan find Susannah before she has her baby?

Song of Susannah was my least favorite book in the Dark Tower series the first time through. Susannah has never been my favorite character in the Dark Tower saga and this book is really Susannah-heavy. On the second read, I had to raise it another star. The Susannah/Mia conflict had its moments and did a lot of setting up for the big shebang coming in the seventh and final book. A lot more background information was revealed.

I'd be lying if I said Susannah wasn't part of the reason I upped this one a star upon re-reading. The other reason is that Jake and Eddie seem like bonafide Gunslingers in this book, even more than they did in Wolves of the Calla. I have a feeling their fates in The Dark Tower are going to be almost as painful the second time through. The relationship between Eddie and Roland has developed quite a bit since The Drawing of the Three, as has Roland's character. I still love Long, Tall, and Ugly, even though he'd probably leave me along the Path of the Beam the first morning I bitched about not having coffee.

There is something else that I liked a lot more the second time but it's pretty spoilerific. Now that I've had a few years to digest Stephen King writing himself into the story, it doesn't really irk me like it did the first time.

While it's not my favorite of the Dark Tower books, it's still good and it lays a lot of the cards down on the table for the final volume, The Dark Tower.

The Dark TowerThe Dark Tower by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The quest for the Dark Tower comes to a brutal conclusion. Can Roland and his friends stop the Breakers of Algul Siento, safeguard the Beam, protect the Rose, stop Stephen King from being run down and killed, and reach the Dark Tower?

This is the end of my favorite epic of all time.The rest of the review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

When the last Dark Tower book was finally published in 2004, I took a Friday off work to make sure I'd have plenty of time to read that first weekend. I don't remember how many days it took to read through the 800+ pages but I know I tore through it. The re-read was almost like a completely new book. Except...

...Well, there's no real way to sugar coat this. The first time through, I shed silent man tears at the deaths of Eddie, Jake, and even Oy the billy-bumbler. Since I knew what was coming, you'd think I'd be able to brace myself during the re-read. Nope. There were silent man tears shed once again. I think it was actually worse this time since I knew what was going to happen.

So much has changed since 2004 when I last finished this book. People have passed through my life and some have passed on altogether. To the clearing at the end of the path, as Roland would say. A lot happens in seven years. When Roland calls out the names of his ka-tet and the others outside the tower, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought of doing something similar.

There's a feeling of suspense throughout most of the 800 pages, from the battle at Algul Siento to the saving of Stephen King to the final fight at the end. Roland's feeling of loss was a very real thing. I know because I felt it too. I think it was actually Roland's loss that pushed my buttons rather than the actual deaths and the breaking of the ka-tet. When the toughest son of a bitch in all the worlds cries, it's some serious shit. By the time this book rolls around, Roland is a vastly different person from the ruthless Man with No Name he was in The Gunslinger.

Even before the Dark Tower was completed, it was one of the books against which I measured all others. Since re-reading the entire saga a second time, I'm happy to say that it still is.

That's not to say I don't have any complaints about the saga. For one thing, I felt like Eddie and Walter both went out like chumps. Walter's portrayed as a big bad throughout the series and didn't really do much. It made Mordred seem like a capable threat but I would have preferred Walter dying by Roland's hand. Speaking of Mordred, his storyline almost felt tacked on and I felt the whole Susannah-Mia thing was overly complex. The Crimson King was a little bit of a letdown as well. The final battle felt like something out of a video game and I couldn't help but picture The Crimson King looking like Dr. Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog.

The ending seems to be a big problem for a lot of people. I didn't have a problem with the ending during the first read, nor do I have a problem with it now. The underlying theme of the series is that Ka is a wheel. Roland going back to the beginning reinforces that fact. King also let himself an opportunity to redo the series if he is so inclined in Roland having the Horn of Eld in his possession at the resumption of his quest.

I don't really have much else to say. It was my favorite epic when I was 19 and will probably be my favorite epic when I'm 99. It's not for everyone but few really good books are.

See you all along the Path of the Beam.

1 comment:

  1. I just wish Eddie and Jake didn't have to die but in a way I guess they never will. The man in black fled through the desert and the gunslinger followed!!