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Review: The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King

By / June 17, 2011 / no comments

Stephen King regularly refers to his fans as “constant reader.”  He has perhaps released no series of books more frustrating or threatening to the constancy of any of his readers than this series.  It is not that it’s not good; it is just that he took so darn long to get the story done.  The first book, The Gunslinger, came out in 1982.  The novel was serially released in five parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the first installment was five years prior.  There was a five-year wait for the second book.  A five-year wait for an author as prolific as King was an eternity!  In 2007, he released the seventh book, the Dark Tower. For those of us who started with the first and stuck with it for twenty-two years, the nightmare had finally ended.

Fortunately, for a reader today there is no need to wait for installments, as all of the books are readily available on the market.  King describes the series as his magnum opus, but the truth is that a number of his other books are better.  Still, the series stands apart from typical fantasy in a number of ways.  First and foremost, the books are a mind-bending blend of genres.  Typical genre mixing puts minor elements of one into another. Rarely do we see a complete integration of genres at all, and never with the complexity has King achieved here.

There are, of course, western aspects to the books.  The main character is, after all, a gunslinger.  Still, Roland Deschain is more than just a gunman.  The entire order of the Gunslingers is really a not-too-subtle reference to the Knights of the Roundtable, and the Arthurian imagery is prevalent throughout the series.  Add to this the high fantasy elements within the world King creates.  Magic is there and real (and refreshingly rare rather than typical) and the pattern follows the Hero’s Journey typology catalogued by Joseph Campbell.  Science fiction is present as well. Not only is there technology on the world, but there is both standard technology and ancient technology.  King evokes apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery simultaneously by not only exploring the post-civilized world where technology has fallen but by exploring more of the apparent upcoming destruction of the world.

The genre-defying elements within the book are overwhelming at times.  In one moment, you envision Clint Eastwood drawing his 1860 New Army Model Remington, but by the time he fires, he has already become Sir Lancelot swinging a sword.  An enemy moves from cattle baron to Al Capone to demon in an effortless flow of characterization and image that leaves the reader breathless.  The reader walks with Roland through the Old West only to discover he’s on Middle Earth.  There is no author alive today who can paint a rich and detailed picture the way King can.  Nobody can develop characters in a visceral and living way as he can.  I defy anyone to read this series and avoid empathically identifying with those King wants him to.  There is nothing we can do but to be drawn into the world, the characters, the settings, and the events. King is simply wonderful at what he does.

The series’ greatest asset is also its greatest weakness.  Like The Stand, which I believe to be a superior book to this series, there is a whole heck of a lot to keep straight!  It is no surprise that the book spawned not one but two encyclopedic works to help the reader keep his facts straight.  The books require a level of effort and analysis that is probably beyond the scope of what an average person seeks in a fantasy read.

In fact, the work that the reader puts in to keep everything straight makes the conclusion to the series almost unsatisfying.  King did such a fabulous job of engaging and drawing us in, that when the climactic end comes, it just isn’t enough.  Of course, King warns us not to read what happens in the tower, but we must.  We are compelled!

I loved this series.  I do not believe there is a finer writer alive than Stephen King.  Even when I’m unhappy with one of his books I tend to like it a whole heck of a lot more than books by anyone else.  He makes us feel.  He opens our eyes to darkness and light and dares us to shut them.  I do not know that anyone could shut them. I am not even sure I could call King out on any of the “flaws” in the book.  His work compelled me to expend all of the effort.  It was frustrating.  It was irritating.  I still did it.  I put in the effort and read every word, savoring it as I read.   There is a new book set in the world of the Dark Tower scheduled to hit the market in 2012.  I will be buying it.  I will be reading it.  I will enjoy it.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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