So, I finished reading Stephen King's Dark Tower
series. Nearly two weeks ago now, in fact. And I've been wanting to record my thoughts on it, but haven't really known where to start.
The short version for bored people: The Dark Tower series is really, really good. I don't care what preconceived notions you may have about fantasy, westerns, Stephen King or any of it, you need
to at least pick up the first book and give it a shot. I'm still trying to decide whether it belongs on the list of works I will recommend to people unconditionally -- that is, the works that no matter who you are or what you usually read, you should read and will enjoy -- but it's firmly on the list of works I will unconditionally recommend that people at least try. At this point, I'm still willing to say that if you don't like the first book you may
not like the whole series, but it's definitely in consideration for the category of "just keep reading until it grabs you by the throat because that will
happen sooner or later." (For context and reference, works in this latter category include Tezuka's Phoenix
, Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, The Time Traveler's Wife
, Gundam Seed, Monster, "Digger" and *maybe* one or two other things that escape my memory -- it's not a long list.)
The reason it's taken me so long to sit down and write this -- aside from, you know, schedule issues with work and all that -- is that I just needed to get some distance from the series. The Dark Tower is BIG. It's seven books long, and except for the first one we're talking Stephen-King-sized tomes. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the total page count topped 5,000. So it was the project of a month and a half to read it all, starting the very beginning of January and putting down the last book right before Valentine's Day.
Aside from physical size on the shelf, however, the real glory of the Dark Tower series is that King is wildly successful at making the story itself feel big, huge, important, and Real. The first book, The Gunslinger
, is set in a vast desert, and the action consists almost entirely of this one guy walking in a straight line across the desert on the trail of this other guy. Occasionally there are other people. At one point there is a flashback. Obviously, at this stage of the game the plot itself isn't going to be winning many readers, but the book pulls you in because of the atmosphere. To shamelessly steal an observation from someone I talked with at Vericon, King makes the desert feel
vast and (as he describes it) "the apotheosis of all deserts," relying not on crutches like capitalization or metaphor (e.g. " the Desert") but just by the simplicity of his language.
As you get further into the series, however, Plot starts to happen and actual characters are introduced, and it becomes clear that the story of the Dark Tower takes place across many different worlds, including our own. The protagonist's quest is to reach the Tower, which stands at the center of all the worlds and, more or less, supports the universe. Just that last bit, successfully executed, would make for an excellent fantasy novel, but what brings the Dark Tower slamming home is that the alternate-worlds device itself feels utterly believable. King makes you want
to believe that our world is genuinely part of the universe of the Dark Tower, and I actually found myself looking up details like what buildings stand at which addresses in New York City, just to see whether they were the same as the ones the heroes visited.
The Dark Tower succeeds because it is, bar none, the single best piece of escapist fiction I've ever even heard of. It achieves that by not asking us to believe that there is magic behind every corner, or that we ourselves might be the Chosen Ones and whisked off to a great destiny or wizard school or whatever. With one specific exception, King goes out of his way to not
disallow the possibility that we are, in fact, already included in his world. So, what he gives us is a truly great story, full of heroism and friendship and danger and glory and all that stuff, but it is a story where we don't have to *wish* that we could be a part of it, because we already are.
So, yeah. Read the Dark Tower. Trust me.
*One minor footnote: the people that I know who have read the full series are divided into two camps: people who love the entire thing, and people who loved it but hated the ending. As near as I can tell, the people in the latter group are the ones that read beyond the author's note just before the very end of the seventh book, where King basically says "I didn't want to write any more, but SOME people just HAVE to have EVERY LITTLE DETAIL explained to them, so if you MUST know what actually HAPPENED in the end, read on, but don't say I didn't warn you." I stopped reading there, for instance. So when you get to that point, I would strongly recommend just putting the book down and enjoying the ending King wanted to give you.
**Additional footnote: there is another entry coming, in which I want to talk more specifically about what I liked and disliked without worrying about spoilers, but I'm not sure when that will arrive.
***Footnote the third: if you have not yet read swan_tower
of The Dark Tower, then I do suggest you check it out, as it was one of the deciding factors in getting me to pick it up in the first place. Hopefully between the two of us we can convince you.