Book Review – Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series

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-By Caleb Jones

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I had always avoided reading the Dark Tower series since it didn’t seem like “real” fantasy to me. I mean, c’mon, it was written by a horror guy (Stephen King) not a fantasy guy. Nothing against Stephen King, and I had read his one fantasy novel earlier (The Eyes of the Dragon). He’s a creative writer but many of his stories seemed to lack good endings; just my opinion. I’m also not a horror fan so I really haven’t read very much of his stuff.

Plus, much of the story took place on our Earth. Also, instead of a medieval setting, the fantasy in Dark Tower is set in an old west, cowboy setting. This is fine I guess, but was outside of my interests.

Yet, since everyone kept screaming at me about how great the Dark Tower series was, and since Stephen King considers this his magnum opus, I finally gave it a shot. I read every one of the original, primary seven books (I skipped the novellas, short stories, comics, and later-published ‘shove-em-in-the-middle’ books). I also knew a movie was coming, and wanted to read all the books first, since I didn’t want the movie to poison my view of the books. Books are always better than the movie or TV versions anyway (Game of Thrones being the one and only exception; those books suck, but the show is pretty good).

Here are mini-reviews of all seven primary books in the series. I will do my best to keep them spoiler free, but no promises.
The Gunslinger – This is the first book King wrote in the form of several short stories in the late 1970’s. It tells the story of a lone gunman, Roland the Gunslinger, based on the Clint Eastwood character in the Dollars trilogy of movies, as he pursues the Man In Black through a vast dessert. It’s average. The best thing about the book is that it’s pretty short, and I read it with the assumption that the later books would be better. (My assumption was correct.)
The Drawing of the Three – In this book, Roland “summons” his three companions from various times on our Earth; a kid from the late 70’s, a heroin addict from the late 80’s, and a black woman bound to a wheelchair from the 60’s.

Much of the book takes place on Earth, which I thought would bother me. However, the book is so creative (the most creative one in the series) that it really kept my attention and I ended up loving it. It is an extremely unconventional story. In the very first chapter, the hero gets some of his fingers and toes permanently lost (bitten off by giant lobsters), and it just gets crazier from there. It’s one of the best books in the series.
The Waste Lands – My favorite book in the entire series. It’s actually the first “real” story of the series when Roland and his companions are finally assembled and they travel through Roland’s dying world to find the Dark Tower, the center point of all reality. The companions encounter giant cyborg bears, sex demons, diseased city pirates, insane robot trains, and all kinds of other crazy shit. This book was very exciting and I loved every page. If I had to go back and re-read one book from this series, this would be the one.
Wizard and Glass – Sadly, my favorite in the series is followed up by my least favorite, by far. About 85% of Wizard and Glass is told in flashback form, when Roland was a teenager and how he met his first and only true love. The characters are interesting and King’s writing is skilled as always, but the story is so god damn boring that it was very difficult to get through. A huge portion of the story is focused on Roland’s lovey-dovey affair with a Susan, a pretty girl he meets in a village, and it just makes you want to puke.
Honestly, if The Waste Lands hadn’t been so good, I would have chucked this book and given up on the entire series, but I figured that if The Waste Lands had been great, following books in the series would probably be too. At least, I hoped…

Wolves of the Calla – This book is okay. About a third of the book is told in flashback form from many different characters. What was most interesting to me is how the structure of this book is duplicated in the TV show Lost (which happens to be my favorite TV show of all time). The head writer for Lost, Damon Lindelof, cites The Dark Tower as one of his favorite things ever, and the series’ influence on Lost shows very strongly in this book (long, detailed flashbacks for characters, strange numbers that reappear in odd places, lots of discussion about fate and purpose, etc).

Most of the stories are interesting and entertaining, but there were times during this book when I just wanted Stephen King to get on with it. The entire story leads up to a giant battle at the end, most of which is just mildly okay and doesn’t meet expectations. I still liked the book; just wish it could have been better.
Song of Susannah – Okay, now we’re talking. This is a good one. The story moves quickly and is always interesting. Most of it takes place on Earth, which I thought I wouldn’t like, but once again I was happily proven wrong. This is also the shortest of the seven books (I think) and it has a fantastic cliffhanger ending.

This book is a great example of combining deep character study with fast action and a plot that makes sense. Many other fiction authors could learn from Song of Susannah. Well done.
The Dark Tower – This is the second best book in the series behind The Waste Lands. It’s perhaps the densest book in the series, since so many things happen, so many characters die, and so many new characters are introduced. A new villain is introduced that the series had been alluding to for a long time, and he’s very flawed and compelling.

One complaint is that the primary villain of the entire series is dispatched somewhat easily at the end, at least in my opinion, which was sort of a letdown. There’s also a lot of dark shit that happens in this book, and the ending is also dark, but Stephen King doesn’t go full bore with it, and I think he should have. It’s more “dark, but with hope” rather than dark. He should have gone full dark or full happy ending; one or the other.
I’m also quite sure that if I had read all of Stephen King’s other books, I would have enjoyed this book more, since there are so many characters from his other books. However, as I said above, I haven’t read King’s other stuff since I don’t really like horror. These are minor complaints though. Of all the Dark Tower books, this was the one I was most excited about getting to and finishing.

Overall, I rate the entire Dark Tower series an eight out of ten. Good and entertaining, but not amazing. There are several other fantasy series that are much better, including Sanderson’s Final Empire series, Abercrombie’s First Law series, and of course the granddaddy, Erikson’s Malazan series.

At least now I’m ready to watch the movie when it comes out in a few weeks. My guess is it will probably be shitty or average, but it won’t ruin anything for me now that I’ve read the books, which was the entire point.

Now to find a new fantasy series to read that I haven’t read yet. Hmm…

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