Dark Tower, The
by Stephen King (2004)
6/10 Volume, 8/10 Series as a whole
Hmmmmm. This is a really tough book to review. Does it satisfactorily finish what for me is one of the greatest fantasy series ever written? Yes, but without much room to spare. In this particular volume the problems outweigh the strengths, but luckily it can draw upon the greater strengths of the entire series for its salvation.
First of all, the illustrations are amazing, not only the color pages but the chapter ends and the section beginnings. Flawless work and IMO the best of the series. They add a ton of weight to the already impressive Dark Tower mythos.
And it starts off great, with 100+ pages of pumping action. Unfortunately I think those 100 pages and probably the next 100 should have been added to the end of Book VI, just because there was so much going on in this book that all of these very weighty events end up swept under a rug by the end of our journey.
That brings me logically enough to the main problems of this volume: the bad pacing and mystifying narrative choices that plagued it from beginning to end. Book VI, almost the shortest of the series, would have clearly benefited from the addition of these opening 200 pages (which had to have been written at the time of VI’s publication). Here are several extremely spoilery examples of pacing problems:
*****SPOILERS FOLLOW FROM HERE TO END OF REVIEW)*****
*****SERIOUSLY, THE NEXT TWO WORDS ARE A MAJOR SPOILER*****
-Walter’s death (around p. 200) feels too abrupt and ignoble given his build-up from the very beginning of the series. That Roland didn’t kill him I suppose is justifiable (though only barely), but the fact that there was never even an encounter between Walter and the ka-tet after Book V is inexcusable. An easy way to make this scene weightier (and to make the preceding book much stronger) would have been to designate this as the very last scene of Book VI rather than the quarter-mark of an action-packed final entry. As is, King’s treatment of Walter’s death detracts heavily from his status as one of the principle antagonists of the entire series (and even of King’s greateroeuvre). Bad choice.
-Eddie’s and Jake’s deaths occur within 60 pages of each other and only mark the halfway point of the book. Of course the story dictated they die, I make no gripes there, but there had to have been a better way to send them off and give each demise the breathing space it deserved.
-The most climactic point of the entire 2nd half is the Dandelo episode, by far the tensest and best-drawn conflict. This is a huge problem considering in that same half we see the deaths of five major characters (Eddie, Jake, Mordred, Oy, & Crimson King), all of whom have been in more books (and therefore better earned an iconic showdown)!
Honestly a lot of those problems seemed like lazy writing, as if King just wanted to get through whatever plot beat he was on in order to finish the thing. Certainly the Mordred encounter felt that way, and even the car crash. The Crimson King showdown felt more like King had written himself into a corner and had no idea how to undo it besides copping out to a really lame plot device. And how was the Mordred showdown not a bigger deal after getting built up for 500+ pages? All Roland had to do was shoot him? Seriously, the chief plot-movers of the showdown are Roland’s sleepiness and Mordred’s illness, not this amazingly powerful wizard-killing antichrist.
And Mordred’s powers were completely inconsistent (and therefore I can only conclude they were contrived for maximum drama). Why couldn’t he have mind-controlled Roland & Oy the same way he did to Walter? And to a lesser extent: we know he could call birds and weasels to him for food, but why couldn’t he do the same with deer when he was starving? These are just a couple examples of King’s frequent failure with internal consistency.
Another (minor) failure of internal consistency is Finli O’Tego. He is portrayed as having no idea that gunslingers might come to Algul Siento (p. 238) when we know from Book V that he was receiving transmissions about gunslingers from Andy and Ben Slightman. Whoops Mr. King, whoops indeed. Other major, extremely spoilery consistency issues:
1. On p.141, we see Roland “wondering that so little remained of the woman (Mia) whose obsession. . . had come so near to wrecking their enterprise for good. . .” This comes very close to admitting what many readers may have already been feeling: Mia’s immediate death at the hands of her spawn make her entire character feel like an unnecessary plot device. Couldn’t Susannah have been impregnated with the antichrist and birthed it without an alternate personality, and without all the kidnapping drama? Wouldn’t we have been left in the exact same place plotwise (with the spider-spawn scuttling off and Susannah back with her friends)? In an already bloated series with too much going on (especially this last volume), we could have lost the entire Mia subplot and saved 3-400 pages.
2. Now I’m on record as being a sort of apologist for King’s inclusion of himself as a character (see my Book VI review). I don’t mind him being part of the plot nearly as much as I mind his intrusions as a narrator, which got progressively worse as the series proceeded. An example on page 160: “What I’d show you is much more bizarre than anything we have looked at so far, and I warn you in advance that your first impulse will be to laugh. . .” This is lazy and even mistrustful of his readers.
So I was an “insertion apologist” until the major consistency issue of this book. I first noticed this on p. 455, when Roland blames Eddie’s death on King’s laziness and fear (for not writing the story when he should have). Maybe I’m dense but I have no idea what one has to do with the other. If he had written the story sooner Eddie wouldn’t have died? If that’s really the case then King did a poor job of explaining it.
This was worsened a few pages later (458) when King more fully explains his role in the story. He calls himself a “prophet” of the Beam, hearing its song and singing it for the masses. He’s not creating it, it’s already there. But if this is true, if the Beam is present regardless and King’s job is just to reveal it, then his (in)actions can have no effect on the proceedings. Clearly we see this because the ka-tet has done many things that King has not yet explicitly thought of.
So this is the biggest problem with King’s insertion of himself into the story: according to him, his death cannot destroy the Beam, though his characters spend a huge part of the book acting as if it can. King himself renders King the character irrelevant, though much of the preceding conflict of Book VII depends on this storyline. King reducing his role would have saved a couple hundred pages, helped give more breathing room to the other conflicts of the story (alleviating the plot-crowding), and avoided mountains of griping by fans.
Other, relatively minor gripes:
-The most major of my remaining problems is King’s visuo-spatial deficiency. He shows himself capable at times — the opening battle at Dixie Pig, most of the battle at Algul Siento, Mordred v. Walter — but at other points you have no idea where the characters are in relation to their surroundings or other characters. The bar-none worst example of this was the climactic car crash in the middle of the book. King does such a piss-poor job of explaining where the cars are in relation to the characters and the road that you have no fucking idea how anything is happening. I seriously read this passage three times to try and figure out how Roland was going to get to King from the passenger door of a moving car when King was (I think) on the driver’s side as they approached. . . and then how Jake climbed over Roland, jumped out of the passenger door, and got to King all before the other speeding van bore down upon them. I mean seriously, this is terrible. It’s like King had “Jake saves King from van” written on his outline and just whipped out the scene in 30 minutes before lunch. To a lesser extent, the post-Algul Siento goings on involving a certain important character’s death suffered the same shortcomings.
And at the end the same occurs with Roland’s final approach to the Tower — at one minute he’s standing next to Patrick at a great distance from the Tower (I wanna say it’s miles but I have no real idea because King doesn’t specify), and in the next paragraph Patrick hears him yelling the names as he approaches the Tower door. Umm, huh? Seriously, he could have drawn that much better, and most of this stuff recalls the pacing issues from above — it just seems like lazy writing, as if he was checked out while writing it. At the very moments he should have been the most checked in.
-p. 210, our introduction to Ted et al. Algul Siento was maybe the best extended episode of the book, and I liked these characters. But when first meeting them after coming through the doorway, or afterwards when catching your breath and discussing what’s going on, how does it not occur to anyone to ask “Who the fuck are you and how the fuck were you expecting us?” When obvious, natural questions go unasked, it renders the entire interaction unnatural and contrived.
-p. 127: I like the scene sealing the deal w/Cullum, but King gets too bogged down in finance-y Wall Street stuff; it cheapens the epic scope of the series.
-p. 543, King trying to defend himself to his readers for killing Jake. . . ugh. Don’t be so defensive Stevie.
-And finally, Susannah THROWS AWAY his fucking gun???!!! Like in a TRASH CAN??!! Are you kidding me? Seriously King, this is one of those times when I’m willing to overlook an internal inconsistency. Just don’t mention the gun at all after she goes through the door and you never have to make this happen. ARRGH.
And now for the positives:
-The Coda/Finale was the perfect end to a very imperfect series (one that I still love, BTW, because of its archetypal plot and fascinating characters), but again Mr. King: stop being defensive about your story already. You’re better than that.
-I really liked Ted’s descriptions of the Breakers and their motives. . . King did a good job of making them nuanced and pitiful characters with no real alternatives.
-Roland’s meeting at the Tet Corporation was well-done and poignant. I wish King would have spent more time on this when Roland reunited with Susannah.
-I also liked King’s personal insights. On p. 173 he says, “Damnably quick though King had been throughout his career — a genuinely talented writer who’d turned himself into a shoddy (but rich) quick-sketch artist. . .” This bit of self-awareness is amusing, but later on (p. 313) he makes a deeply personal self-indictment that impressed me greatly. It really drives home how much of himself King bled onto these pages, and how much of a gift this series has been for his readers despite its significant flaws. I’ve simply never read anything else like it.
So at long last we get to the conclusion. Those reading this review will very likely feel similarly to how I felt getting to the end of the book. I was exhausted and just wanted to finish it already, regardless of liking it or not. I won’t pretend my review is as compelling as King’s books though; even with all the defects these stories are eminently readable.
One of the most interesting things to me about the series is how fans are all over the map on which books they like best. Some swear by books 2 & 3, others really like 5, which I consider the worst. I happened to really like 6 which many consider the worst (although Book VII makes me think less of Book VI in hindsight). Anyway, my personal order, including lines demarcating the tiers of quality: 3, 4, 1, 2 // 6, 7 // 5. Take it for what you will, and check out my reviews for more detailed explanations.
My humble opinion on making the series better: an editor should have convinced King to reduce the “Wolves of the Calla” episode by 75%, cut out Mia entirely and character-King mostly, and then more evenly spread the events of Books V, VI and VII over two books. This would have made for a leaner, more tonally consistent reading experience that didn’t pile too much conflict upon the reader, thereby reducing the weight of each conflict.
A final aside for those interested in The Wind Through the Keyhole: I’m glad to have read it in narrative order and not in the order of publication. Revisiting the characters after the events of this book would have felt trivial and unsatisfying to me.
In concluding conclusion: A one-of-a-kind series that requires real patience and drive to get through. I personally found it extremely rewarding (if exhausting), but I would never blame anyone for leaving it unfinished. I may, however, judge you for leaving it unstarted. . .