Book Review: Dark Tower #1 – The Gunslinger

Title: The Gunslinger
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1982
Series: Dark Tower
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Spoilers, For The Other Books in This Series As Well

gunslinger

Plot Description: A lone man trudges across a vast desert, chasing after a stranger in a brown robe. He’s Roland Deschain of Gilead, the titular Gunslinger, and he’s on a quest to find the Dark Tower – whatever that may be.

*Cue lamentation* Oh Gunslinger! How I wanted to love you! You and every character, every plotline, every single repeated phrase and cringe-worthy expression of emotion and…

Oh well. The Gunslinger opens on Roland trudging through the desert, then flashes back to the village he’d stayed in a while back, then back to Roland trudging through the desert and thinking deep thoughts, now back again to that village, and now Roland is thirsty in the present and that reminds him of how he was thirsty a while back and had come across a random farmer after he’d left the village…

The flash backwards would have been an interesting narrative device, but they get swallowed up in the vast, navel gazing desert that is The Gunslinger. The book tries to keep the mystery of Roland and his quest alive by dropping tantalizing hints – and this works, but not for too long. And all the while you’re being distracted by scenes, themes, parallels, and Easter Eggs – all the things, in short that a fan would want to see while doing a re-read.

Roland’s universe is – as far as I understood it – set far in the future. So far in the future, in fact, that the human race hit the ultimate limits of technology, surpassed it, had themselves a couple of nuclear wars and worldwide plagues, managed to find Magic in an alternate universe and marry it to technology in an attempt to keep the world alive… and then disappeared/ died out, taking their knowledge and most of their tech secrets with them. What came after (the Great Old Ones, which is what these masters of technology are called) is a mixture of the medieval era and the wild, wild west. Roland is of the line of Eld, started so many years ago by King Arthur of Eld, who was I suppose the first gunslinger. Arthur founded an order of gunslingers – legendary law enforcers and fighters, and Roland is the last of them. It is imperative, it seems, that the reader understand just how important and awesome and cool and effective Roland is.

Yeah, we get it.

The plot isn’t bad, as far as fantasy novels go. The universe is a fascinating mix of futuristic technology, the Wild West and medieval europe – a holy trifecta for fantasy readers. But then we get to the details, and I start wondering just how disturbed the mind of Stephen King is.

Don’t get me wrong. I can read smut, and crass stuff, and I’m often impressed by it. Because masterfully placed smut can jolt the reader like not much else can. But – and here’s what I think is a golden rule – smut should never be used purely for shock value. There has to be a point. It must further or enrich the plot somehow.

So hearing about a crazed religious preacher who claims the man being chased by Roland has magically impregnated her, and who then tries to kill him… is a bit confusing, to say the least. Like, what is the point of this pregnancy? Why was it mentioned? Does all of this serve to heighten the atmosphere of strangeness and occult horror, making the reader jumpy and on edge.

Yes, it sort of does. Until the reader is saturated with this nonsense and no longer feels surprised at anything not even a mutant spider-man hybrid baby that was born of two human and two supernatural parents, and whose only goal seems to have been to murder all of its parents… by eating them, and anything else that gets in its way. 

The reader is supposed to focus on Roland. Roland the man, Roland the deadly killing machine, Roland who is blindly focused on his quest, Roland who regrets killing the people he doesn’t completely hate, but can’t care enough to do anything about it.

The moment where Roland sacrifices a newly acquired travelling companion (a young boy called Jake) for the chance to face the man he was chasing is a turning point in his life. While he remains unsure of whether he’d repeat this act if he had to, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have. If he’d ever been faced with the choice of Tower versus the life of a loved one, Roland would pick the loved one.

Roland is so impossibly perfect (as far as gunslinging goes) in this book that you can’t help but admire him. But that’s about it for this book. The writing is sloppy, there are plot holes that you won’t notice until you get further along in the series, and the whole experience is dry and distracting, thanks to all the flashing back and forth.

Stephen King refers to this series as his magnum opus. I agree, if by magnum opus you mean the biggest story you’ve ever written. Just like with Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, the first book in the Dark Tower series is a set up. It has just enough background and slow plot to keep the reader interested, and it ends on a pause, not a stop. And just like with Alvin Maker, the Dark Tower series seems to spin rapidly out of control the further you get.

I honestly cannot decide which series is worse – the pros and cons cancel each other out – but like with Alvin Maker, this book (and by extension, this series) shouldn’t really be picked up by anyone who’s going to feel cheated by an unsatisfactory ending which comes on the heels of pages and pages of word vomit.

Next In This Series: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Next Review: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily

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