Book Review: The DARK TOWER

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book-review_-dark-tower-viiStephen King
Grant
2004

“Death, but not for you, gunslinger. Never for you. You darkle. You tinct. May I be brutally frank? You go on.”

The seventh and final installment of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower saga is perhaps the most anticipated book in the author’s long career. King began this epic tale about the last gunslinger in the world more than 20 years ago; now he draws its suspenseful story to a close, snapping together the last pieces of his action puzzle and drawing Roland Deschain ever closer to his ultimate goal.

The final book (in theory) of the long-going Dark Tower series, and this one’s a doozy. Strap in, this is gonna be a bumpy ride.

So, picking up where the last book left off, Jake and Callahan sieges The Dixie Pig, which turns out to be a vampire lounge that specializes in roast human flesh and features doors leading to their worlds. Because nightmare fuel really brings out the subtle nuanced taste of the brisket. Callahan ultimately sacrifices himself to save Jake from the inevitable vampire attack. Meanwhile, in the world of Fedic, Mia (having been separated from Susannah) gives birth to a bouncing baby boy…that can turn into a spider, which it does and immediately feasts on his mother. Susannah manages to escape Fedic back into the Dixie Pig and meets up with Jake and Oy, Roland and Eddie recruit a guy named John Cullum in Maine, then they all make their way back to Fedic. Walter/Randall Flagg is killed by the rapidly maturing baby/spider (going by the name of Mordred), while Roland and the gang get involved with freeing a bunch of psychics that are being used to weaken and break the beams that support the Tower. Eddie is wounded and dies, then Roland, Jake and Oy jump back to our world Maine 1999 and save Stephen King from getting hit by a minivan, only to have Jake killed by said van in his place. Roland and Oy meet back up with Susannah in Fedic, get chanced by a monster, and continue on to The Dark Tower. They meet up with another vampire, a psychic one, that makes them laugh a bit too much, they free his captive that had once appeared in King’s 1994 novel Insomnia, who can make his drawings come to life, and so Susannah has him draw a door out of this world, because she knows that Roland needs to finish his quest without her. Then Mordred (suffering from a serious case of the trots) attacks, killing Oy (quite the body count we’re racking up, Sir Roland), but then gets killed by Roland. The remaining two finally arrive at the Dark Tower, only to find it already occupied by the Crimson King. No worries, though, because Roland’s remaining companion manages to just literally erase the Crimson King’s existence, allowing Roland to enter the Dark Tower finally. Then we get a glimpse of how Susannah turned out, and if you keep reading, you end up right at the beginning of the upcoming Dark Tower movie. The End.

I’m not kidding about that last part. It seems that the long-planned and finally coming out the year of this writing is officially a sequel to the book series, as a small bit of a reveal that I’m not going to spoil shows why it’s a sequel and not a straight adaptation of the books.

As far as The Dark Tower goes, this was epic. Both by the size of the book and the scope of the adventure itself. It’s quite a bit darker, as of course people close to Roland don’t get out unscathed. I understand that the majority of those I’ve talked with consider the final confrontation between Roland and the Crimson King to be a cop-out let down, but I actually get it; it’s in keeping with King’s voiced opinion that the big bad evil always seems bigger and scarier from far off, but when you finally confront it face to face, the “unstoppable evil” always turns out to be more bark than bite. That’s not to say that the Crimson King was a wuss; his evil influence has a far-reaching and devastating effect, felt in the books Black House and Insomnia (where a couple of characters first hail from), and is quite possibly the embodiment of Satan himself. Regardless, it was a rather out-of-the-box way that he was defeated. Also, the true ending to the tale…I found it satisfying. Then again, I am something of a geek when it comes to…endings like that. Also, giving the were-spider monstrosity explosive diarrhea was hilariously awesome.

Overall, though it clocks in at nearly 850 pages in length, being the longest book in the series, I was completely engrossed in the story from beginning to end. I think the all-encompassing tale of the Dark Tower is far from being over; however, this is a good ending to a larger arc in the tale.

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Book Review: SONG OF SUSANNAH

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book-review_-dark-tower-viStephen King
Grant
2004

King looked back at Roland. “As The Man With No Name–a fantasy version of Clint Eastwood–you were okay. A lot of fun to partner up with.”

To give birth to her “chap,” demon-mother Mia has usurped the body of Susannah Dean and used the power of Black Thirteen to transport to New York City in the summer of 1999. The city is strange to Susannah…and terrifying to the “daughter of none,” who shares her body and mind. Saving the Tower depends not only on rescuing Susannah but also on securing the vacant lot Calvin Tower owns before he loses it to the Sombra Corporation. Enlisting the aid of Manni senders, the remaining katet climbs to the Doorway Cave…and discovers that magic has its own mind. It falls to the boy, the billy-bumbler, and the fallen priest to find Susannah-Mia, who, in a struggle to cope with each other and with an alien environment “go todash” to Castle Discordia on the border of End-World. In that forsaken place, Mia reveals her origins, her purpose, and her fierce desire to mother whatever creature the two of them have carried to term. Eddie and Roland, meanwhile, tumble into western Maine in the summer of 1977, a world that should be idyllic but isn’t. For one thing, it is real, and the bullets are flying.

Here we are, the penultimate edition in the overall Dark Tower series, and…things get wonky. I mean, things have gotten wonky in past books, yes; this is, after all, a fantasy epic, in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings, by way of Sergio Leone. But, where the previous novel had only a little bit of the ol’ time-and-dimensional hopping shenanigans, Song of Susannah goes entirely Masters Of The Universe: The Movie. You know, the live action He-Man movie that didn’t have the budget to set things in Eternia, so He-Man and the gang wind up in New York for most of the time? Yeah, this is the Dark Tower novel that’s set in our dimension, at different points in history. Specifically, 1977 and 1999. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, here.

So, after Susan got all possessed by her unborn demon child and escaped into the dimensional doorway into New York of 1999, closing said door and throwing away the proverbial key, Roland and the remaining Ka-tet members–Eddie, Jake, Oy, and including Father Callahan–manage to open up another magic door and go in…only, Jake, Oy and Father Callahan wind up in 1999 New York, where Susannah/Mia have shown up at, while Roland and Eddie are sent to 1977 Maine. Roland and Eddie manage to fend off enemies sent by the Crimson King and get the deed to the land that has the rose in New York, and then get all super-meta when they pay a visit to Stephen King. Mind you, it’s 1977 Stephen King, and is considered the conduit for which the story of the Dark Tower saga transmits itself. That, and the Gunslinger and Eddie’s presence in Maine causes reality in the town to go all wonky and “thin”, as it’s mentioned. And thus Roland encourages this “wordslinger” to continue with the writing of the Dark Tower saga. Meanwhile, in 1999 New York, Susannah/Mia are taken to a restaurant called the Dixie Pig and is preparing to give birth to that unholy spawn, attended to by the Crimson King’s men, as Jake, Oy and Father Callahan show up and prepare to storm the restaurant to rescue Susannah. Then we end things by discovering via journal entries that Stephen King the character died in 1999. Wacky.

Considering the shadows of our world showing up in Ronald’s world, and the fact that The Drawing of the Three spent a goodly chunk of time in (for lack of a better term) our real reality (albeit something of a slightly altered history version), the characters jumping to different points in time in our reality wasn’t something suddenly utilized to shake things up. Also, authors appearing in their own novels isn’t anything new, either. And in a way, Stephen King writing himself into this story actually fits in the narrative; the fact that he was rather self-depreciating when he did it, making him come off as a bit of an arsehole that got on Ronald’s nerves a nice way of downplaying what could have been a cheep ego boost.

Overall, while the twists and turns do tend to give you a bit of motion sickness, Song of Susannah nevertheless was rather engaging and entertaining.

Book Review: WIZARD AND GLASS

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book-review_-dark-tower-ivStephen King
Grant
1997

“Not all is silent in the halls of the dead and the rooms of ruin. Even now some of the stuff the Old Ones left behind still works. And that’s really the horror of it, wouldn’t you say? Yes. The exact horror of it.”

Roland and his band of followers have narrowly escaped one world and slipped into the next. There Roland tells them a tale of long-ago love and adventure involving a beautiful and quixotic woman named Susan Delgado. And there they will be drawn into an ancient mystery of spellbinding magic and supreme menace!

The fourth book in the Dark Tower series pretty much picks up right where the previous novel left off, with Roland and the gang stuck inside a psychotic monorail speeding off West, destination: DEATH BY SMASHY-SMASHY! To kill the time (no pun intended), Blaine (because that’s the name of said Monorail) engages everyone in a game of riddles. This goes on for a few hours, when Eddie decides to go full-on Spock from the episode “I, Mudd” and manages to short-circuit Blaine by telling childish jokes. They get off at Topeka, Kansas, but it’s the one from the 1980s after having been depopulated due to the superbug from the book The Stand (the original 1980 version, not the 1990 recut edition…just, try not to think too hard about that). They camp out next to a tear in reality (because…reasons, I guess), where Roland regales his ka-tet with a lengthy tale of when he first became a Gunslinger and came across another tear in reality, which came in handy when an entire army he was fighting fell into it. I’d go into detail, but let’s just say that things escalated when Roland fell in love with a betrothed maiden (as it does), and came across a pink scrying orb that showed him a rather bleak future. Pretty heavy stuff for a 14-year-old. The next morning in Kansas, Roland and the Ka-Tet (which sounds like a band name), come across Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, and run into The Man in Black from the first novel, aka Marten Broadcloak from Roland’s story, aka Randall Flagg from The Stand/Tears of the Dragon/pretty much every baddie across the King-o-verse.

I’ll just come out and say it: Wizard & Glass is pretty much a filler episode in the overall Dark Tower series. There was a good six year gap between the previous novel and this one, and one gets the sense that King was not really all that enthusiastic about continuing on with the Dark Tower saga. But, that’s just speculation on my part.

As it stands, Wizard & Glass doesn’t really advance the story arc forward, and is mostly made up of a flashback story from Roland’s youth, something that was adapted into the Gunslinger Born comic miniseries. I did geek a bit from the cross-pollination with King’s other books, specifically The Stand and the revelation that the series’ main antagonist has been seen before in previous stories under different guises. Regardless, while not being a bad one, Wizard & Glass stands as my least favorite book in the Dark Tower series.

Book Review: The WASTE LANDS

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book-review_-dark-tower-iiiStephen King
Grant
1991

“What we’ve got here is a lunatic genius ghost-in-the-computer monorail that likes riddles and goes faster than the speed of sound. Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Roland, The Last Gunslinger, moves ever closer to The Dark Tower of his dreams and nightmares as he crosses a desert of damnation in a macabre world that is a twisted image of our own. With him are those he has drawn to this world: street-smart Eddie Dean and courageous wheelchair-bound Susannah. Ahead of him are mind-rending revelations about who and what is driving him. Against him is arrayed a swelling legion of foes both more and less than human….

This is the book where I didn’t read it when it was initially released. Well, I began reading it, yes, back in 1992 when I received a trade paperback edition as a gift; however, around that same time I began sliding into the point in my history where I stopped reading fiction in general because of…reasons. One day I shall go into these “reasons” in depth, but for now, that’s just going to have to do. Needless to say, I got to about the part when Roland and the Ka-Tet (which is a great band name idea, by the way) encounter a giant cyborg bear. I’d say SPOILERS, but chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve read the book as well and know what I’m talking about. That’s the point when I closed the book and said, “I’m good,” and put the book away, to be lost with the other books that I had turned my back on in that time period. The 1990s was a wacky time for me.

It wasn’t until 2010, when I decided to read all of the Dark Tower books in succession when I read The Waste Lands in its entirety. Being a bit older, and a bit…well, I wouldn’t go so far as saying “wiser”, but for want of a better word and all, I found myself enjoying this third entry in the Dark Tower series far more than back when I first attempted to do so.

Here in The Waste Lands, after running into said giant cyborg bear (which turns out to be one of the Guardians of the Six Beams that are tied into the Tower), they get a bead on the path to the Dark Tower, and head out into Mid-World. There, it’s found out that, due to Roland’s actions in The Drawing of the Three, he’s created a paradox in reality, wherein certain events in The Gunslinger have been retconned out of reality, but Roland remembers both that reality and this reality. Eddie is inspired to carve out a key that would open up a door between Roland’s world and the New York in our reality, and let Jake through, joining the quest. Along the way, they encounter a Billy-Bumbler who also joins the gang, and then Jake gets kidnapped by a bunch of post apocalyptic city dwellers lead by a guy named the Tick-Tock Man. Then they all climb aboard a high-speed bullet train with sentient AI and an acute case of psychosis who wants nothing more than to exchange riddles and jokes while deciding whether or not to kill them. Also, they’re headed towards Kansas. The end.

The Waste Lands was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of The Drawing of the Three, wherein more is revealed about Roland’s world, and the final members of his Ka-Tet completes the group: Jake and Oy, the billy-bumbler that is described as a kind of racoon/dog hybrid with a high level of intelligence. The adventures in this installment are a bit darker, especially when they arrive in the run-down city and Jake is almost immediately kidnapped by the locals. Then there’s the psycho train they climb into at the end, which will lead into the next book and leaves things in quite a cliffhanger.

Overall, the story in The Waste Land was necessary to the narrative, but seemed to cram a lot into a small area to accommodate the story. There were points where it was in danger of going completely off the rails, no pun intended. Regardless, a rather interesting continuation of the overall tale.

Book Review: The DRAWING OF THE THREE

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book-review_-dark-tower-iiStephen King
Grant
1987

Roland could not understand why anyone would want cocaine or any other illegal drug, for that matter, in a world where such a powerful one as sugar was so plentiful and cheap.

While pursuing his quest for the Dark Tower through a world that is a nightmarishly distorted mirror image of our own, Roland is drawn through a mysterious door that brings him into contemporary America. Here he links forces with the defiant young Eddie Dean, and with the beautiful, brilliant, and brave Odetta Holmes, in a savage struggle against underworld evil and otherworldly enemies.

After reading the first novel in the Dark Tower series and finding myself underwhelmed with the original experience (bit different when I re-read it in my 30s, as you may recall if you read that review), I then decided to press on and read the second entry in the Dark Tower saga, The Drawing of the Three. It had just hit in the mass market edition through the Signet label, which just happened to coincide with my finishing up The Gunslinger. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.

I remember reading this in the Spring of 1990, at the age of 16, and being completely immersed in the continuing story in a way that truly sucked me in and lost track of reality. It was obvious that this was a better tale than that of the first book, and although The Drawing of the Three was twice the size of The Gunslinger, I ripped through that far faster.

The story picks up where The Gunslinger left off: Roland wakes up on a beach, where he’s immediately attacked by a mutant lobster. He loses a couple of digits on his right hand, which gets infected, causing him to lose strength as he’s walking along the beach. He then comes across a series of doors along the beach, like he suddenly found himself in the middle of a Pink Floyd album cover shoot. Because these are magical doors, when Roland passes through one of them, he finds himself inside the head of someone else, seeing through their eyes. The first two people turn out to be the ones he was destined to recruit to join in his quest to find the Dark Tower: young heroin addict Eddie Dean, and a feisty young lady named Odetta Holmes who seems to have more than just Roland riding along in her head, let’s just say. The third door leads to the head of a sociopath that just happened to be the guy who not only caused the physical and psychological trauma for Ms. Holmes, but also was the cause of death for one Jake Chambers in New York, which lead to his appearance in the first novel. Some quantum-reality jumping wackiness ensues, resulting in Odetta’s split personalities to merge into Susannah Dean and Eddie to kick his heroin addiction, and Roland finding himself in the company of new companions to accompany him on his on going quest.

As I mentioned, I originally read The Drawing of the Three in just a handful of days (keeping in mind that I was 16 and still had to find time to read in between homework and the other things that were competing for my attention at that tender age), and the story stuck with me long after I finished reading it. Even back then, I was heavily fascinated by surreal concepts like doorways that lead to alternate dimensions in time and space (among other things), and since the narrative of this story involved a Being John Malkovich setup (long before that movie became a thing, I should also point out), this story just blew my teenage mind right out of every orifice in my head. Re-reading it now, the story still holds up very well, and continues to blow my mind with the fantasy elements, as well as exploring the nature of psychological brokenness. Not to mention getting a bit of a tie-in with discovering the origin of how young Jake ended up in Roland’s world, and how that tied into the drawing of what would become Roland’s companions as they continue the quest for the Dark Tower.

Book Review: The GUNSLINGER

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book-review_-dark-tower-iStephen King
Grant
1982

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

I began reading Stephen King’s magnum fantasy opus Dark Tower series back in 1989. I won’t go into the history of the writing of this particular book in what would become a seven-part series (eight if you count that flashback novel published after the fact, but eh…I haven’t felt the need to read that one yet); needless to say, King started writing it back in the late 70s as a serial that was finally collected in the mid-80s in Trade Paperback form, and then finally in the later part of the 80s in mass paperback form. The last format was the one I began reading.

And boy, was I bored with the story.

Keep in mind, I was all of 15 when I started reading that, and my attention span wasn’t what it is now. However, this was also the early edition of The Gunslinger, which was quite a bit different than the editions of this story we have now. And there is a noticeable difference. Mainly, the revised edition flows a bit better, and doesn’t seem as dry as the original one seemed to be. It took me several months to get through The Gunslinger when I was 15; when I re-read it back in 2006, I remember beginning reading it…then suddenly I was done in a few hours. Which, considering I was telling myself to take things slow, savor the story, I didn’t have much money to spare to pick up the later editions of the Dark Tower series, suddenly finding myself reading the final page left me in kind of a daze, wondering what happened. Anyway…

For all intents and purposes, I’ll be focusing on the updated edition in this review, as it was the one that I read most recently, and still have in my collection. On we go, then, sully forth…

We begin our epic tale with the titular Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing a mysterious man in black (sadly, not Johnny Cash), on his quest for a mysterious Dark Tower, the center of not only this reality, but all realities. There are some flashbacks to where Roland has been leading up to now, which paints a picture of a land that’s not quite like ours, but bears an eerie similarity. Along his journey, he comes across a bunch of mutants, a town that was mystically boobie-trapped by The Man In Black to kill Roland, and a boy from what turns out to be our reality that has somehow managed to turn up at an abandoned way station in Roland’s world. Then the Gunslinger catches up with The Man in Black, and…they sit down and talk around a camp fire. The end.

As I mentioned above, it didn’t take me too long to re-read The Gunslinger. It does well with establishing the main character of Roland, a hardened, haunted man in a world that has moved on, on a quest that seems to be a fool’s errand, a tilting at windmills. It was also a good blend of fantasy and western, like Robert Jordan as filtered through Zane Gray. Mind you, The Gunslinger is probably the lesser of the seven core novels of the series, but it’s also merely the introductory adventure to set things up. The real fun doesn’t really start until the next novel in the series.