The story fled across the page and the reviewer followed…
With the recent release of The Dark Tower in movie theaters, I thought now would be a good time to check out the book series it’s based on. Since I didn’t have time to go through the entire series, we’ll be looking at just the first book. Turns out, The Dark Tower is the name of the series. The Gunslinger is the name of the first book.
I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, so I’ll be coming into this with fresh eyes. I was especially curious to check out this book as Stephen King himself claims this series as his magnum opus. Plus its supposedly the series that connects his literary multiverse. I was unaware that he even had a multiverse in his books, but I was excited to see what this prolific writer could produce.
And it was…underwhelming.
Let me tell you why.
The book starts promising enough. Our hero, the titular Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, wandering the desert and musing about how the world is ending. The book wastes no time in establishing his objective, to find and kill the Man in Black.
Better watch out Will Smith.
No, actually this Man in Black is more like a silver-tongued preacher with supernatural powers.
We see a display of these powers in one of Stephen King’s most used tropes, the flashbacks. Unfortunately, the flashbacks are one of the biggest issues I have with the book. I’ll come back to them in the character section of this review but almost all the interesting stuff happens in the flashbacks.
The rest of the book is spent wandering, chasing the Man in Black. First, through the desert until he finds a boy, Jake Chambers. This boy has been yanked out of Earth, our Earth, and thrown onto the Gunslinger’s planet of Mid-world.
Once they finally leave the desert, they pursue the Man in Black across a grassy plain for a while. Of course this plain was so similar to the desert it actually took me some time to figure out they weren’t actually through sand anymore.
Then they reach a cave. Guess what they do. They wander around the cave system for a while, and I do mean a long while. I didn’t count exactly how long they were underground, but it was longer than a week.
Now you may be thinking, well that’s not so bad, lots of books have characters making long journeys. This is true but usually things happen along those journeys. Odysseus faced many different monsters on his voyage home. The fellowship of the ring encountered dozens of challenges in just the first book.
In this book, Roland and Jake encounter three monsters, one per area they wander. At least in the desert they faced the dangers of dehydration and heat stroke. Except that problem disappears in the grassland and cave because there are rivers in both.
No sunburns in the desert. No claustrophobia or vitamin D deficiency in the cave. Roland surviving all this I might be able to buy since he is the action hero protagonist. But Jake is a teenage boy. He should have died five times over.
So surely, all these months of travel must be leading up to an epic confrontation between our heroes and the Man in Black, right?
King certainly defies expectation with his climax, but very poorly in my opinion. Its major failing is that the climax moves at the exact same pace as the rest of the novel. That is to say, a slow plod.
Now, a weak plot could be forgiven if the characters were enjoyable. We don’t always need epic battles and clever confrontations if our heroes, villains, and bystanders are interesting enough to keep us engaged in their struggles.
Well prepare to be disappointed.
Stephen King seems to think that all you need to do in order to develop characters is to provide flashbacks for them. Being the viewpoint character, the gunslinger gets most of them.
Now some of these flashback are well placed and do provide good character insight. Others just come out of nowhere and give us a look into the world before the apocalypse. I get the feeling they are supposed to make us feel just how much has been lost by this world’s collapse, but since Roland only ever lived in one place before the apocalypse happened, it doesn’t work. What it does do is make me wish we were reading about young Roland grow into a gunslinger. Then when Armageddon happened we could have really felt the loss.
Instead, we’re stuck following boring adult Roland. And adult Roland is so dull. He has essentially given up caring about anything other than revenge. This would be a great starting point for a character to grow from. He could learn to care about the lives of others again. He could realize the folly of revenge and find a more noble goal. Anything would have been better than what does happen, which is nothing. His character does not progress at all. He is the same person at the end of the book as he is at the beginning, except now with more emotional baggage to make him super brooding and dark.
I just could not bring myself to care about the gunslinger because he did not care about anything. Well, nothing except Jake Chambers.
Yes, young Jake Chambers, our damsel in distress for the evening. As with Roland, Jake starts out promising. He is a teenage fish out of water. He enters the story by dying and finds himself in a world just as dead as he is.
Now, most of us, upon finding ourselves in another world via death would probably freak out at least a little and remain freaked out because we wouldn’t know what to expect. Jake on the other hand is so chill about everything that he might as well not be there. He is a wide-eyed, innocent but troubled boy who is in this book to get hurt and give Roland something to care about. And he doesn’t even do that very well.
Allow me to give you an example.
At one point, Jake gets injured by a demon and is out cold. Roland is, of course, worried. Then our titular gunslinger comes to an amazing discovery. He loves the boy as a son. Barely a week after meeting him, with their only interactions being a hypnosis session and some very basic and minimalistic dialogue, and Roland decides he loves the boy.
Um. Mr. King. That’s not how love works. Not unless it’s a super cute dog. Teenage boys aren’t dogs Mr. King.
Of course, after this stunning revelation about his own emotional thirst for companionship, one would expect Roland’s behavior or thoughts to change. They don’t.
Roland assumes, correctly, that Jake is someone the Man in Black wants him to care about and thus leave him emotionally vulnerable. So Roland essentially says, “Nah bro” and does nothing different. He never brings up his fatherly feelings to Jake himself and only occasionally acknowledges them to himself. He continues not caring the whole way through.
But what about our main antagonist, the Man in Black. I’ve only mentioned him in this review, but I haven’t really delved into what he’s doing. The reason for that is because he is essentially not in most of the book. The gunslinger chases him and he constantly stays several miles conveniently out of sight until the end.
This works for villains like Sauron and Sarumon from Lord of the Rings because they are untouchable beings of immense power that loom over our heroes like a shadow. At first, the Man in Black seems to be taking this same role. He is supposedly responsible for the apocalypse of this world, he turned an entire town to basically worshiping him by bringing a man back to life, and he even leaves cryptic symbols in the ashes of each of his campfires.
The problem is that he doesn’t strike that chord of fear and awe that other villains do. We don’t see how he caused Armageddon, we only hear that he did. He does little but taunt our hero as he continues to run to some specific spot.
He just doesn’t leave an impact on you like a good villain should.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of this book, let’s see how good King is at prose.
Let me say this right off the bat, Stephen King is fantastic at sentence structure and poetic prose. Almost every line that should be significant is arranged with the hand of a master wordsmith. This is evident from the first line of the book, which I parodied at the beginning of this review.
However this does not save him from a few glaring flaws in this work.
If anyone has ever taken a writing class, they know that there are three common POV (point of view) styles that authors use. First person and third person over-the-shoulder are the most common, with third person omniscient becoming less prominent with each passing year. In writing classes, you are taught to generally stick with one writing style for one piece of work. Stephen King does not do this in The Gunslinger.
At first he uses a typical third person over-the-shoulder. Then at seemingly random intervals, he’ll switch to third person omniscient. This is especially confusing when we are in a flashback and we suddenly know the thoughts of someone other than the viewpoint character.
How in the world does Roland know what the bartender is thinking about? I thought Jake was supposed to be the psychic one.
Needless to say, it really takes you out of the narrative, which is the last thing any writer wants to do.
Another problem with Mr. King’s writing is his world building.
With environments, social norms, and creatures, King really makes this world feel different yet familiar. He makes us feel that Mid-world could be a dark reflection of Earth.
However, when a character opens there mouth, that’s where the illusion is lost. King attempts to have the people of Mid-world speak like we did back in the Old West. He even draws attention to it at a few points when Jake begins talking like Roland. The problem is that he seems to forget about this speech pattern during some bits of dialogue. Sometimes a character will say something appropriate to the setting and other times they’ll sound like they’re LARP-ers who can’t figure out how to say something the way a cowboy would. It’s very distracting.
I’ll admit, this book may not have been the best introduction to Stephen King’s writing. Apparently, he wrote this book when he was around nineteen years old and it shows. I’ve heard that the series gets better, but after this snooze-fest I can’t bring myself to pick up the next book.
The wordsmithing was fantastic, but everything else was just incredibly boring and mediocre. Maybe I’ll try one of his more widely known books next time.
I give Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” a 2 out of 5.
If you have a suggestion for what you’d like me to review, be it a movie or a book, please leave a comment below.