The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King.
It’s simply years since I read any Stephen King, and then I only read his horror stories. I was only vaguely aware that he had written a series which was a dark fantasy. Then Shelflove decided to launch a readalong of The Dark Tower, a series that King himself has described as his Magnum Opus. I decided that if Teresa and Jenny loved it, I probably would too. I duly ordered book one, The Gunslinger, and was quickly immersed in the strange world of Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger.
I have to say, it was not what I expected at all – it was far better! I think I was anticipating an overt homage to Lord of the Rings, but instead we got a mystical The Good, the Bad and the Ugly set in the post-apocalyptic territory of The Road in this first volume. There is a very dark, deep fantasy element which subtly creeps in from Arthurian legend. There are too, parallels with LOTR, particularly Frodo’s journey through the Mines of Moria; but there were also no hobbits or other mythical folk, unless you count a few zombie/lazarus and mutant types.
The first book splits into two main sections: – We meet Roland Deschain on his quest. He rests with a smallholder at the edge of the desert, and recounts the story of his days in the last town he passed – a place he came to and nearly began to feel part of. That wasn’t to be, and hounded from town the gunslinger leaves the townsfolk of Tull changed forever. Then he takes up his quest proper to hunt down the Man in Black and find the Dark Tower. After a long journey involving much hardship, and a friendship with a ten year old boy raised from the dead, Roland does catch up with the Man in Black, who has both revelations from the past to stir things up further, and prophesies for Roland’s future. Sprinkled in between is the story of Roland’s later adolescence and his coming of age initiation as one of the youngest gunslingers ever, in a society which emulated the Arthurian ideals of chivalry.
I was never quite sure whether this dystopia was set on our Earth, or an alternate one. References to earthly things abound, notably The Beatles’ song Hey Jude, the chorus of which wafts through early chapters. It was never quite as obvious as in Planet of the Apes, where they eventually discover a half buried Statue of Liberty in the sand. I liked that ambiguity which added to the mystical feel of the novel. The landscape may be sprawling, but this novel moves on at a fair pace despite all the thinking that Roland does.
This made for a good read although, for me, King sometimes likes to stick in an occasional elaborate word that seems out of place – ‘Neither of them had any means of telling the clock, and the concept of hours became meaningless, abnegate. In a sense, they stood outside of time.’ But minor stylistic quibbles apart, King’s writing was full of strong descriptions, and Roland will surely evolve into a character to be really reckoned with. I read the 2003 revised and expanded version – King revisited this novel to iron out inconsistencies, tweak the plot into a more linear form and make slightly less dry for new readers. King explains this in a new introduction and foreword to the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this Western-style dystopia in which the chivalric order no longer has a place. King has created a frightening yet thrilling vision, with plenty of questions to be answered and room for dark magic in the following books. Yes, I shall be carrying on with this readalong, book 2 is on order! (8.5/10)
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