10 March 2017

Books: Wizard and Glass: The Dark Tower IV By Stephen King (1997)

Previously in the Dark Tower series…

The ka-tet was racing from Lud to Topeka on Blaine The Mono (Blaine is a pain),  a pink colored train that was “alive” and had spent his life traveling between stops in Mid-World with a companion mono named Patricia. But the world had moved on and now there were no one to travel with and slowly, ever so slowly over the decades and centuries, both trains began to break down, and because they were almost sentient, their wearing out of electronic parts began to make Blaine and Patricia slowly go crazy. Patricia has already committed suicide, but Blaine, who had begun hearing rumors of a gunslinger walking the lands again, held out hope. By the time The Waste Lands ended, Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy were on their way to Topeka. But Blaine, ever crazier than a shithouse rat, trapped them. This 8 hour ride at supersonic speed to the end destination would be his last. And he was taking the ka-tet with him…unless. Unless the four desperate people could amuse him, stump him, with riddles…

It was a great cliffhanger, to be honest, but a frustrating one for those who were reading the series as it was released, as there was six long years between the publication of The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass. Today, of course, if someone was to begin The Dark Tower series (or re-read them as I’m doing), the pain of that cliffhanger is muted because ten seconds after finishing The Waste Lands, a reader can begin Wizard and Glass

What I remembered about this fourth book was the ka-tet’s arrival in Topeka and the realization that this series was not more or less an alternative universe to ours, but one of many different universes, stacked on top of each other like cords of wood, with the linchpin being the mythical Dark Tower that Roland peruses and many that are trying to prevent him from getting too. Here we get the first real clue that while Eddie, Susannah, and Jake are all from New York, they may not actually be from the same New York (there are other worlds than these). As an example, the Captain Trip’s super flu from The Stand may have savaged this world, this Topeka, but since (in King’s revised 1991 version of that book) that began in 1986 and Eddie come from 1987, it’s clear that on Eddie’s version of New York, the bug was never released. It remains unknown if either New York’s Susannah (1964) or Jake (1977) come from would’ve spawned the deadly flu. 

Anyways, after three books that pushed the story (in a somewhat linear fashion) forward, this book and the ones yet to come, now begin filling in Roland’s backstory. This story-within-the-story plot device which King uses for the latter volumes can be both good and bad (more on that later). Unlike movies and TV shows which must tell a linear tale, books have the unique ability to shuttle back and forth between the present and the past. In the first three books, we get a lot of hints and comments about Roland’s youth, his mother, father, Cuthbert, Alain, Cort and the wizard that long time King readers will know.

And by now the reader knows that Roland, at the age of 14, becomes the youngest gunslinger in memory when he discovers his father's trusted counsellor, the sorcerer Marten Broadcloak, was having an affair with his mother, Gabrielle Deschain. In anger, Roland challenges his mentor, Cort, to a duel to earn his guns. Roland bests his teacher, and his father sends him east, away from Gilead, for his own protection (and this action alone sets the whole series in motion. For Roland is the “chosen one” and he has enemies who want him destroyed). As the ka-tet leaves Topeka via the Kansas Turnpike, and as they camp one night next to an eerie dimensional hole which Roland calls a "thinny", the gunslinger tells his apprentices of his past, and his first encounter with a thinny.

While the pretense of his exile is to hide from the wizard, all three boys (Roland’s childhood friends, Cuthbert and Alain go with him as protection) other job is to discover what is going on in the distant Barony of Mejis (The rest of the books plot is lifted from every Western novel, movie, and TV cliché you can think of, even with the heavy influence of Wizard of Oz and, of course, Lord of the Rings). For war is coming and with the betrayals in Gilead, Steven Deschain needs to know what the rebel leader John Farson (who is mentioned, but never seen) wants in the Outer Barony. 

A bit overlong Wizard and Glass is, and at times I felt King went off in tangents that halted the progress of the story (his love of giving secondary characters and others, ones who aren’t actually part of the main narrative and appear briefly, back stories can be grating from time to time). And much like the Western genre this tale emulates (think a bit like 1991’s Unforgiven), there is no room for subtly here. Roland’s ka-tet is the white hats, and the men (yes, the men) who run Mejis are the black hats. The town is full of other men and women who do what they’re told because fear is used as a weapon to keep them in line, so a tick off on another Western cliché. And there is Susan Delgado, not necessarily the prostitute with the heart of gold (though she is be about to become the public mistress of the Mayor), but who falls for Roland –as he does for her- on first sight (something King even makes mention some pages later as being not realistic. Still, it makes my eyes roll, this meta moment). 

At this junction, I must stop. The last three books total nearly 2,500 pages and I have new titles coming from the library I want to get to (including the final volume in V.E. Schwad’s Darker Shade series and the final volume in the Star Wars: Aftermath sequence). Plus there is Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy I want to re-read in preparation of his new series this June.

03 March 2017

Books: The Waste Lands (The Dark Tower III) By Stephen King (1991)

For the 2017 re-read of The Waste Lands, book III of The Dark Tower, I think I understood it better. I do remember that this third book was the best of the series so far, and today I still think it is –despite the slow pacing and the much meandering about of the first hundred plus pages or so (which I admit is somewhat of a pattern in all of King’s books that are over 500 pages, which is many). King drops a lot of new stuff here, especially the temporal paradox created in book two, which I seemed to have forgotten about. I loved the idea that both Jake and Roland were slowly going mad and how King created and made this paradox believable. 

When I read this back in 1991, like many, I was frustrated that it ended on such a huge cliffhanger. But knowing that Stephen King was such a prolific writer, it stood reason that maybe two, or at least three years might go by before we got the next book. But six long years went by before Wizards and Glass, six years where King would release nine other novels, including The Dark Half, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, Insomnia (which introduced protagonist of that book, The Crimson King, who would go on to have a major role in this series), Rose Madder, The Green Mile, Desperation, and The Regulators, in that same period, and by the time book four had come out in 1997 I was hoping to remember what went down in The Waste Lands (I was not in the mood then to re-read the three previous books). What I do remember of this period was me trying to shift away from series books that had a long wait between releases. A lot had to do with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which began in 1992. The first three books came out in rapid succession, only to slow down as the writer began to go off in tangents and slow down. When working for Borders at the time, I remember not a day went by when some asked when the next book in Jordan’s series was coming out.

To be honest, I don’t know what I remembered about my initial reading of the book way back then. However, now in this re-read, I began to see how The Waste Lands would really began setting up everything came before and would follow, and how long time Constant Readers of King began to see and understand that all of his previous and future works would be connected to the Dark Tower universe. There were two very subtle references to The Stand and one to It. I think I missed all of them back in 1991, but caught them very clearly this time around. 

As a fantasy novel –another writer inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, but also Spanish director Sergio Leon and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name western series - the Dark Tower novels do sit on the same genre shelf, but what King does here is he blends fantasy with horror, science fiction, alternate-universe, thriller, psychological terror (which King really took to after he completed this series in 2004), and some dark humor. Yes, the books go on longer than they should (in the revised version of The Gunslinger, in his forward, he mentions his desire to write the longest book ever), but the layers the writer creates do have a tendency to play out later. So while at times I do wonder if King needs a better editor to put a foot down and ask him if we need these 20 or 30 pages of exposition that has little to do with the main thrust of the story, I do trust him that some of it will be seen later (if not in this book, then the next).

22 February 2017

Books: The Drawing Of The Three: The Dark Tower II By Stephen King (1987/1990)

I can see why now that Stephen King revised The Gunslinger, as The Drawing of the Three becomes a more traditional fantasy novel than the five short stories that made up the first novel in The Dark Tower series. Here the scope of King’s vision grows, even if the book is overlong. But here he brings the first two of the people whom the man in black mentioned Roland will need in his epic voyage to The Dark Tower

A little over seven hours have passed since the end of the first book, and Roland wakes up on a beach, where he is suddenly attacked by a strange, lobster-like creatures which he dubs a "lobstrosity" (Did-a-chick? Dum-a-chum? Dad-a-cham? Ded-a-check?) whom quickly takes a few chunks out Roland (an index and middle finger of his right hand, and his right big toe) before he kills it and –of course-  the wounds quickly become infected. But his despite his feverish body and loss of strength, Roland continues his journey, searching for the three doors that the people he needs. Each door opens onto New York City at different periods in time (1987, 1964 and 1977, respectively) and, as Roland passes through these doors, he brings back the companions who will join him on his quest to the Dark Tower. So with the majority of the action taking place in New York, Mid-World largely only appears in framing sequences, and is propelled by a mind-sharing conceit that King sets up early and explores the ramifications of deliberately for the rest of the book (something I think Wesley Chu borrowed for his Tao series).

What I remember about the book from the first time around was Eddie Dean, the young drug addict that (like many King characters) has a heart of gold. Also, there is Odetta Holmes, a black woman with dissociative identity disorder who is active in the civil rights movement. She is wealthy and missing her legs below the knees after being pushed in front of a subway train. Odetta is completely unaware that she has an alternate personality, the violent, predatory woman named Detta Walker.

I did not like Detta. Not back then and still not today. Part of the reason, I think comes from not liking a writer –a white writer- use that kind of language, in particular the N word and the slang. I can’t explain why I dislike it, but I do. 

Like I said, I do think the book goes on way too long. I give credit to King to write much longer, much linear novel than the first one, a book that essentially takes place in just a day or two. He also does a bit of retcon here, as it’s implied in The Gunslinger that the man in black killed Jake, but now we meet Jack Mort, a sociopath who –coincidentally- is the man who pushed Jake into traffic and who injured Odetta a few times over the years.  I missed that the first time around. I wonder how much I’ve really missed in these early books.

14 February 2017

Books: The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I by Stephen King (1982/2003)

For a long while I had been tooling with the idea of re-reading some books. But a part of me had thought this a really dumb idea, mostly because I have way too many unread books to really take this on.  There is a thing, an issue only readers can fully understand, is that while I surround myself with books, and continue to buy books, and take books out of the library, I sometimes think that while I bought those books to read, I  just don’t want to read them now. And as a matter of fact, I need to go out and buy some more.

This has escalated to a point where I now have hundreds of unread books sitting next to my bed, my computer, my living room, and in boxes in the garage that I do want to read, but not just right now. But I should be reading those because time is always running short, because I have less days in front of me than behind and I really should never re-read a book because I have so many other books huddled around me like frightened children.

But my mind is dulled by work related issues and my will is loose like a dead leaf blowing in a angry wind and have decided to do this anyways. So I begin with Stephen King’s epic seven-volume Dark Tower series.

While the original book was released in 1982 by Donald M. Grant, a specialty press anchored in New Hampshire, it was, essentially, a compilation of five short stories King wrote between 1978 and 1981 and published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While King was already super popular by then, the mainstream reader was not aware that the book was released until 1983 when Doubleday published Pet Semetary and included The Gunslinger as one of King’s previous works. Of course, by then, the original limited printed book was long out of print. While Grant did reprint more copies, the book would not get a general release –in Trade Paperback by Plume- until 1988. This was the edition I would first read. 

Of course, the series would continue, first through Grant and then through King’s mass publishers. There came The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), Wizards and Glass (1997), The Wolves of Calla (2003), The Song of Susannah (2004), and The Dark Tower (2004). An eighth novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, was released in 2012. While not wholly part of the original seven books (and King call it book 4.5) it can be read before The Wolves of Calla or just after the last book. Plus there was a short story prequel that took place just before the events of The Gunslinger called The Little Sisters of Eluria, which originally published in 1998 in a collection called Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy. In 2002, it was included in King's Everything Eventual, which also featured another story that introduced us to a character that would pop up in later books. But it was a near fatal run in with a van in 1999 that eventually convinced King to really finish his Dark Tower series, which was why the last three came out so rapidly.

Since much of my Stephen Kings books are stored in boxes, I decided to obtain the used versions of the mass market versions of the series, including this 2003 revised version of the first book. While some may quibble that King should leave well enough alone, the reason he felt the book needed to be revised was that by now The Dark Tower novels had become the linchpin that tied together much of King's body of work outside the series. He felt changes were needed to not only make the earlier book more accessible to new readers, but to make the storytelling more linear and consistent with the later book, especially the last one. It also gave him a chance to clear up continuity errors that would introduced in the final books. The changes amounted to 35 new pages. 

I do remember a lot of the book, especially the introduction of John “Jake” Chambers, the boy who “died” in our world, pushed into oncoming traffic by The Man in Black, only to find himself “re-born” in a world that had “moved on.” His horrific death, with the wheels of the car breaking his back, with blood spouting out of his mouth left a deep impression on me. Part of the reason Jake resonated with me was because King, in his writing, did not hesitate to kill kids (‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Semetary come to mind). Up until I became a Constant Reader of his books, most writers avoided killing kids off. Much like in movies and TV then, children were rarely seen dying or being killed, it was considered taboo (though in 1936 Alfred Hitchcock film Sabotage, the legendary director has the camera follow a boy who is carrying a canister with, unbeknown to characters on screen -though the audience knows this- has a bomb implanted in it. The camera follows the boy for several minutes, heightening the tension, before he boards a bus, which eventually blows up killing the child –and which one critic at the time called “brutal and unnecessary.”) 

So King kills off kids, which scared me, yet made sense. While re-reading this, I did notice now the early mention of the Crimson King (called just “the Beast” in the original edition) who’s real first appearance –and first mention- came in King’s 1994 novel Insomnia (the first book outside his Dark Tower series that many noticed really began to connect things). The Crimson King would get fleshed out in 1997’s Wizards and Glass

I still like this book and will always recommend this series, as I find it enjoyable. And being a long-time reader of King I also appreciated that he rewarded us with the Dark Tower universe and the many other novels he released that were –in some obvious and less obvious ways- connected to it.

10 February 2017

Books: The Rise of Io By Wesley Chu (2016)

“Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace. With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?”

I will admit that I was hesitant at first to delve into The Rise of Io. I really enjoyed Wesley Chu’s Tao trilogy and I was worried that all he was going to do was reboot his series by just adding a female protagonist set in India. While I did find some of the early plotting of the story to be very similar his first trilogy, eventually the author won me over with Ella, a feisty, street-smart heroine. Her snarky attitude and just as often, her bullheadedness became the high-point of this new series. 

And Io is a complex Quasing who has made more mistakes in her long-time on Earth. In some ways, she reflects humans whom seem to make one misstep after another and thus begin to have conflicted loyalties. You root for her, and Ella, but as the story progresses you see that like many of us, she is the author of her problems. 

What I liked was Ella, a well conceived character who is flawed, but can take care of herself. She belongs to the new reality of modern science fiction writing where a diverse cast is all on equal footing. But while Ella does not really need anyone, including Io, she is still a human being. So under that tough exterior, that snarky dark humor, is a girl who has taken care of herself most of her life, who really does not care about the alien conflict going on around her, but who shines with pride when someone acknowledges that she is not helpless. 

A nice start, The Rise of Io is.