There are minor spoilers in this review. You’ve been warned.
Stephen King is nothing if not prolific. I mean the man puts out novels like Tupac puts out albums—which is saying a lot considering Tupac has been dead for nearly twenty years—but the Dark Tower series is considered to be King’s “magnum opus” and with good reason.
The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is composed of five stories or “novellas” if you prefer, the Gunslinger, the Way Station, the Oracle and the Mountains, the Slow Mutants and the Gunslinger and the Dark Man. Each “novella” is separated into small digestible chapters or chunks that help the readability move right along. This book reads very quickly, so you can perceivably read it twice in one week.
The story is set in an alternate world far different from our own. King stated Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy inspired him. Now, I want you to think about that for a moment . . . just let that gestate in your mind for a minute or as my partner Abe would say, let it marinate. OK, he doesn’t actually say stuff like that, but he asked me to mention him in this review and so I have. Imagine the scope of such an undertaking; to combine two completely disparate narrative themes into one story is nothing short of amazing. But does King succeed? Most would say, “of course he does, he’s Stephen-fucking-King! Now shut up and get me a soda” to which I would say, “diet or regular?” But this is my review and to answer the question, I say he does it well, but in a manner I did not anticipate—which is not necessarily a bad thing.
To say that King merged both inspirations for his work into a 50/50 split would be erroneous. I’d say more 70/30; with the spaghetti western feel taking the lead. This world is dark and bleak, which is not what JRR Tolkien’s world resembled. This is a good thing, however, as the world King created serves the story better than a world full of elves, dwarves and hobbits. In fact, this world feels more post apocalyptic than high fantasy. However, I’ve only read the first book in the series and I haven’t started the remaining novels so I think I’ll be in for a real treat with the rest.
The story is about Roland of Gilead and his quest to find the Dark Man. Now let me get this out of the way right now. YES, the Dark Man is Randall Flagg. Yes, the Randall Flagg from the Stand. King has a habit of linking his story worlds together.
While this is a cool convention, it can be maddening to link all of them together in your mind. Well it was maddening for me at least. During Roland’s quest to find the Dark Man, he meets several characters, but the stand out has to be Jake Chambers. He’s an astute 11-year-old boy from “our” world, who comes to Roland’s world when he is killed in a car accident on his way to school. King does not spare the gory details of Chambers’ death. What makes the dynamic between Jake and Roland work is the sort of father-son bond they establish early on. What makes this dynamic ultimately heartbreaking isn’t that Jake dies, but what he says just as he is about to die and the circumstances surrounding his death. I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of not spoiling much of the story, but to anyone who read the Gunslinger, you’ll know what I mean.
King establishes the atmosphere and tension early on. The first sentence is, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This one sentence immediately draws you in. You want to know why the man in black (Randall Flagg) is fleeing and why Roland is chasing him. What’s at stake? Why does Roland need to follow? These questions are answered, and more questions are asked, setting up the sequels.
King sets up descriptions particularly well. You can actually picture everything happening—though he used far too many adverbs for my tastes. He also establishes the characters and the rules of the world in a manner that does not feel like a huge info-dump of exposition (I’m looking at you Iain Banks!). He uses flash back to great effect, which helps establish the characters, in particular Roland. Roland is a silent, hardened man and an excellent gunslinger with little to no remorse for his actions. If something needs to be done, he does it, simple and clean.
In fact, there isn’t much King does wrong with this novel. The pacing is quick and the readability is on point. The plot is established early on and the tension is built at a steady pace. All in all, this is a great book and if you’re new to Stephen King, this is an excellent book to start out with.
Well that’s my review my fellow ronin. The next book up for review (once I’ve read it) is Leslie Lehr’s What a Mother Knows. Since she was my novel writing instructor at UCLA I’m going to be somewhat biased. Of course one could argue that ALL reviews are biased in some way.
Take it easy and as always, RONIN STAND UP!!
PS. If you haven’t been following us on Twitter, do it now!