Myself and my boyfriend share a mutual passion for fantasy, science fiction and thriller. Indeed, I have him to thank for my (admittedly rather late) introduction and ensuing love for all things Star Wars. As such, after he recently decided to pick up Stephen King’s epic fantasy series, The Dark Tower, his positive reviews soon made me decide to enter upon this reading journey with him.
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series centres upon Roland, the last gunslinger, forging his way through a world on a highly challenging quest for, as the title of the series suggests, the Dark Tower. In many ways these books are challenging to review. The suspense and intrigue create such an enjoyable, fast paced read that it would be decidedly mean spirited to give anything away. On the other hand, I am now entering upon the third book in this series, and still remain firmly in the dark, with perhaps a tiny candle scattered here or there, illuminating the very limited knowledge that I have managed to build up of King’s fantasy. Whilst this may seem a rather drawn out affair (three books in and in many ways I still have no clear picture of Roland’s world), it truly is affective. The details King does decide to divulge to greedy readers are well thought out and highly interesting, further igniting my desire to unravel this world and continue with the series. Perhaps the best way to establish the plot of this book is in King’s own words in the preface to his novel where he states he wanted to write a ‘novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop’.
Book One: The Gunslinger
In many ways The Gunslinger follows the device of many fantasy series, in which the first book is used to establish the setting and constructions of this new world. Concluding at a short 200 pages, this book is perhaps simplistic in plot; Roland, the last gunslinger, is chasing through the desert after the strange and dangerous Man in Black. Who the Man in Black is, and why Roland is so decidedly focused upon dragging himself through such hazardous and unforgiving terrain for this man, are questions this first book are somewhat able to answer. But only somewhat.
What I really enjoyed about the introduction to this series was the way in which our reading progression, and the hurdles we must overcome in our quest to discover the books secrets, mirrors the way in which Roland fights to overcome obstacles to reach the illusive Man in Black. With a largely linear, clear plot line, readers are able to devour each piece of intelligence granted to us, without feeling overwhelmed by the scaffolding and construction of the world the author is trying to create. King also carefully navigates away from the dreaded cacophony of ever increasing, complicating characters which fantasies are so often synonymous with. King keeps his main characters refreshingly minimal, allowing readers to prepare themselves for the long journey ahead to the Dark Tower.
Whilst the plot is fast-paced, constantly advancing forward, we are given various flashbacks or memories from Roland’s past, helping to flesh out his character and contribute to the readers perception of Roland. Whilst flashbacks can often be overused, or tedious, I actually found both the past and present of the novel equally engaging. They add another dimension to Roland’s character that is not isolated to the sole presentation of him as the lonely gunsligner entering upon his epic quest. Although King may give us small details about who Roland is, and why he hungers for the Man in Black and the Dark Tower, readers are still left with a gnawing desire to fully understand the world, and so read on. All in all, this first book does its job very well, which is the job of starting readers upon the dangerous yet rewarding journey for the Dark Towers, alongside the mighty Roland.
Book Two: The Drawing of the Three
The second installment in this series, The Drawing of the Three, sees Roland’s quest continue, with the introduction of new characters. After the events of the first book, Roland discovers a door, through which various time periods in New York can be reached. Whilst this may sounds like a spoiler, the book itself states this on the blurb, discussing the three new characters Roland must meet, thereby ‘drawing’ them into both his world and his quest. One thing I am still unclear of is what exactly, and where exactly, Roland’s world is. Is it a parallel universe to ours or a separate world in its own right? His world certainly contains similarities to ours, such as the use of gas stations, creating a largely reminiscent sense of a post apocalyptic/post war world. Is this door to New York magical, crossing dimensions, or is there an explanation which will be divulged if Roland ever reaches the grand apex of the Tower?
One thing we do see in this novel is just how far and how much of an all consuming need Roland has to reach the Tower. I am thoroughly enjoying the characterisation of Roland, a skill which I have discovered in King’s other works. On the face of it, Roland may seem like a one dimensional, stern relic of an old world, but his character is definitely one that is layered and complicated. That’s not to say that Roland is not totally committed to his cause; there is no doubt that Roland would sacrifice someone he is greatly bound to in order to fulfill what he believes is his destiny, his ka. But that’s not to say that he is free of any guilt, free from any moral compass questioning his actions and making his choices that much harder to complete.
This characterisation is something which can equally be found in the new characters this installment introduces. King shows that he is capable of writing from the perspective of various ages, sexes, races, even psychological disorders. Whilst I did enjoy the representation of these new characters, they have not reached quite the same quality and devotion for a character which I feel Roland inspires. Yet anyone who has read these first two books will easily understand that Roland is a pretty badass guy to top!
Whilst in some ways this book could be considered to have a more complex, more complicated plot, I will admit that I personally preferred the first book, something my boyfriend may disagree with. I feel that a vast percentage of this book is located within a New York City which I can recognise or at least relate to. Whilst I understand that this is needed to introduce and set up characters which will presumably reside in this series alongside Roland, I did miss the strange, more fantastical world of Roland’s – a world in which any other location will pale into the mundane in comparison. That is not to say that the events in New York are boring – think Mafia style shoot outs, murderers, drugs and schizophrenia – just that they make me long for Roland’s strange world all the more.
With details of the film adaptation of The Dark Towers emerging afresh every day, I strongly urge anyone with a love for not only King’s writing style, but also a love of fantasy and dark adventures, to pick up this treasure before Roland’s story is told on the big screen. You won’t be disappointed. If you are prepared for a dark, often brutal series in which to become addicted, then this is the book for you.
Stephen King’s writing, as I am sure a vast percentage of the reading population would agree, is superb. It is truly fascinating to go from the cult horror classics King is so symbolic of (Red Rum, Red Rum!!), to something as ambiguous and epic as this fantasy. Stephen King proves that his work is not solely limited to the realms of horror and thriller, but that his writing is equally as exciting and inspiring when challenged. Roland, a man proving that he can complete the perilous journey to his hearts desire, becomes symbolic of King, who is simultaneously able to show he is just as capable of undertaking the difficult, often reputation destroying pathways between ferocious genres which fight to cage writers. King has successfully claimed his victory.
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Book 1 Rating: 5*
Book 2 rating: 3*