Book Review: The Dark Tower, by Stephen King
And so at last we come to The Dark Tower, the final book in Stephen King’s series of the same name (the long tale he’s said is his Lord of the Rings).
The first act is fast-paced—more so than anything else in this saga of Roland the gunslinger and his “ka-tet” of misfit warriors. After the birth of Mordred, his horrifying son by a demon mother, Roland and his companions are reunited and set about trying to save the remaining Beams that support the multiverse. Doing so involves defeating the Breakers (psychics who are destroying the Beams) and preventing King (yes, the author himself) from being killed in an automobile accident. The cost is high: several characters die, both major and minor. But Roland and the survivors succeed.
Then the pace falters. The second act becomes a drawn-out trek to the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of the multiverse and Roland’s ultimate goal. He eventually reaches it, but not before King takes us on some unnecessary tangents, including an extended session on how to make hide clothing. “I’m not ready to be there yet,” Roland says at one point about the Dark Tower (perhaps speaking for King; I got the sense he didn’t want to end the story before he absolutely had to). “Not quite ready … I need a little more time to prepare my mind and my heart. Mayhap even my soul.”
Things pick up in the last act, which features Roland defeating Mordred and the Crimson King—as close as the series has to a big baddie—and finally entering the Dark Tower. I won’t spoil what he finds inside, but I think it serves as a fitting ending, even if it wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped.
So what do we make of all this?
My biggest takeaway was that, as much I appreciate how creative King is, I wish he’d followed a more traditional story structure. For Book 7, he could have clustered the big events—saving the universe and reaching the Dark Tower—for greater emotional impact. For the series as a whole, King could have given Roland a clearer goal and a more-involved antagonist. Getting to the Dark Tower isn’t that compelling; we never know what he’s supposed to do there. And the fight with the Crimson King isn’t as meaningful as it could be, because this is the first time we’re seeing the mad ruler. (Roland also defeats him with a cheap trick. I wish he’d used something he’d learned along the way, rather than resorting to an option King only introduced in the final hundred pages or so.)
I’m also still mixed about King injecting himself into the story. He does this in several ways: by creating a multiverse within his own works, by making himself a character in this one, and by commenting on the narrative as it goes along.
I’ve already talked a lot about the multiverse concept in my reviews of earlier entries in the series. In his afterword, King clarifies that, “My idea was to use the Dark Tower stories as a kind of summation, a way of unifying as many of my previous stories as possible beneath the arch of some über-tale. I never meant that to be pretentious (and I hope it isn’t), but only as a way of showing how life influences art (and vice versa).” It’s a neat idea. But for it to really sing, I would have liked the events in non-Dark Tower books to have more impact on Roland’s larger story (beyond running back favorite characters).
In my Book 6 review, I also pondered the perils of writing yourself into your story. On balance, I think it worked here, and it was fun when the characters ragged on their creator. (Roland and co. call King various forms of “lazy” and “cowardly,” and at one point an old villain dismisses him as a “shoddy quick-sketch artist.”) But having a Stephen King character in a Stephen King book makes certain scenes a bit absurd.
I haven’t said much about how King frequently breaks out his author voice, though. He mostly does this to foreshadow coming events. For example, before a major character dies, King writes, “He slipped the .40 into his docker’s clutch almost without thinking, moving us a step closer to what you will not want to hear and I will not want to tell.” Most authors couldn’t get away with this, but King knows how to set your expectations in a way that builds tension rather than sapping it. (The asides also reinforce the conceit that King-the-character met his protagonists; if the fictional King sees them as real people he created, it would certainly pain him to kill them.)
Final verdict: for all the criticisms I made above, I’m still glad I read the Dark Tower books. They’re inventive, surprising, and original, and I won’t forget them.
But The Lord of the Rings remains my standard for epic tales.
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