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).