The Gunslinger

The Wind Through the Keyhole was read recently by my book club.  It was a fine wee book, which I liked well enough to be convinced to continue with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  That book was the last to be written and takes place somewhere in the middle of the series.  The Gunslinger was the first to be written, and, conventionally, is also the first in the series.

It’s a colder and a harsher book than The Wind.  Roland hasn’t yet assembled his gang of friends (or ka-tet). There is less camaraderie and less sense of meaningful purpose.  In this novel, Roland pursues the Man in Black across desert and wasteland.  It is not apparent why Roland does this, who the Man is, or where he might be from.  The first scenes involve relentless thirst and the wholesale slaughter of a deranged village.  The whole book is imbued with an edgy surreality, somewhat reminiscent of Gene Wolf.

Somewhere in the desert, Roland meets a young boy, Jake, who accompanies him on his journey.  Jake is from our own world, somehow arrived in Roland’s post-apocalyptic Western other-world after his (exuberantly detailed) death.  The two strike up a slightly ambivalent friendship, or father-son relationship.  Together, they negotiate dark caverns and mutants aplenty, before eventually encountering the Man in Black.  This confrontation concludes in a typically obscure and downright mysterious manner, setting the scene (I suppose) for the next book in the series.

I was struck at various points, by Roland’s similarity to Aragorn.  In the introduction to the book, King writes about the way in which The Lord of the Rings inspired him and the desire to create an epic that it awoke in him.  The Dark Tower is that epic, though not (thank god) an epic fantasy of the swords and sorcery variety.  Like Aragorn, Roland is a gifted warrior and sage, last scion of a broken line, destined to battle evil, laconic, and black-wearing.  In this book, there’s even a flight through Moria (well, through some nameless subterranean passage anyway).

It certainly has a different feel to The Wind, but much is the same too.  There’s an emphasis on story-telling and on seamlessly mixing magic with technology that might as well be magic.  There’s a compelling world, which is never quite the far-flung future, or an alternative universe, but somehow both at the same time.  And there’s just damn fine writing.

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