Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles I

A few months ago, when the latest edition in the Twilight series (bearing the barely-connected-to-anything-really title Life and Death) was announced, I was intrigued enough to end up conducting an experiment of my own.

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Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ll know of the enormous amount of criticism the Twilight series has faced. This criticism has been founded on multiple grounds – being severely un-feminist, glorifying abusive relationships, providing impressionable young people with terrible role models, bad grammar and sentence structure, as well as tackiness and general bad taste all around.

Twilight also bears the blame for spawning the severely horrifying Fifty Shades series, which took everything that was bad in Twilight, laminated it, and hung it under a bright spotlight (with a ribbon on it). FSOG was a bald illustration of just how horrible Twilight really was, because it took away the fantasy elements and the teen softness that had served as a buffer between the book’s central and subliminal messages, and the reader’s conscious brain.

fsog.jpeg

If the average reader wasn’t roundly insulted by Twilight (because, SUBTLETY) then they really ought to have been when FSOG came around. Surprisingly (or not, really), the series had the opposite reaction. Women loved it. It hogged the top of the bestseller lists for so long that all the Ian McEwan books came together to plot its gruesome demise. [Citation needed].

The books were hailed as a revolutionary (and positive) expression of female sexuality – finally, we could bring it out into the open and admit that yes, we get turned on sometimes.

Riiight.

Since I’m not here to bitch about FSOG today, I’ll save that for later. Coming back to the criticism faced by Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that an author should become slightly defensive when her work is burned at stake so thoroughly. But then she went ahead and attempted to have the last laugh – to prove her detractors wrong by showing that there is no sexism in the Twilight books. Her argument was that the only reason Bella Swan is such an incorrigible damsel-in-distress is because she’s dealing with a superpowered family of vampires, around whom, duh, a human would be significantly powerless. She also decided that the best way to prove this would be to swap the female gender for the male and vice versa, and release a new version. This new version would show the female vampire, Edythe Cullen, as powerful and as always rescuing the hapless Beau Swan. Presumably.

It’s not a bad idea, really, assuming that EVERYTHING ELSE in the original book is left as is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Changes were made, which have been discussed in detail in this video by Youtube vlogger marinashutup:

Stephenie Meyer however, did give me an interesting idea when she made her announcement. I asked myself – how would other books fare if given the same treatment? I chose none other than the most ambitious project for my newly conceived ‘Meyer Test’:

hp17coverafts
YEAH. I WENT THERE.

The results of my little experiment were…

Shocking and creepy.

Yes, you read that right. I was saddened, of course. Jo Rowling is one of the last people you’d name as a symbol/ proponent of misogynistic patriarchy. [I wasn’t really surprised though, I mean, it’s impossible to be surprised if you’ve read her Cormoran Strike series.] And yeah, regardless of all of this, I’ll still be reading HP on my deathbed. Nothing and no one is perfect, but HP comes pretty damn close, I’ll say.

I’ll detail my findings in the next post, but first a few words on gender roles and why they’re problematic.

  1. They traditionally don’t take into account the non-binariness that is the true nature of ‘gender’. We have forever divided all of humankind – and animals and everything except for algae and stuff (and even they’ve had a close shave) into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Primarily distinguished, of course, by the ability of one of these ‘genders’ to produce (in one form or another) the next generation of the species.
    Pure stuff and nonsense, I gotta say, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to think outside of these boxes.
    Also thanks to said box, I’m going to limit the rest of my points within the traditional discourse of the gender binary – I just don’t know enough to talk about it more than that.
  2. The ‘males’ are traditionally designated as the protectors, the defenders, the hunters and providers. They’re the warriors, the brave, the powerful and the ones capable of hardness/ strength (used interchangeably, of course).
  3. The ‘females’ are traditionally designated as the weak and defenseless ones that require protection, along with the offspring they produce. They take care of the ‘home’ front – turn the raw material brought in by the ‘males’ into stuff usable for the comfort and utility of everyone in the home. They produce and bring up the children and are considered sensitive, loving, kind, compassionate etc. All these qualities are considered essential for someone who needs to ‘mother’ young ones and safely bring them into adulthood.
  4. I’m already getting a headache talking about this.
  5. These gender roles are now a lot less strictly enforced than they used to – took a couple of world wars to bring that about, by the way. But even in today’s world, they’re quite evident, quite omnipresent. Women do go out to work – but they’re typically paid less, perceived as less competent, and also as a liability because of the dual nature of their responsibilities. This is because even though they now go out of the home front, all home front matters are still firmly placed on their shoulders.
  6. Representation of the genders – in our culture and media, as well as in real life – is skewed in line with these gender roles. More males are portrayed as the main protagonists of extremely popular fiction. More females are portrayed as mere love interests, damsels in distress, and – if they’re lucky – less competent sidekicks. STEM professions, as well as those that require ‘logic’ and ‘hard-headedness’ are typically filled with more males. Conversely, males taking up jobs that are seen as requiring compassion, sensitivity and caring are roundly made fun of. [See male nannies and nurses].

Well… that’s enough talking. Next post reflects on the effect of a gender swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Until then, here’s another post by marinashutup raising a few questions about the Hogwarts houses that never occurred to me. (Have they occurred to you?)

Up Next: Feminist Analysis of The Effect of A Gender Swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Book Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1991
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

You’ve Been Warned: Watch For Spoilers

the waste lands

Plot Description: Roland, Eddie and Susannah travel along the path of the Beam until they meet up with Jake Chambers, the boy whose death Roland had allowed to happen in The Gunslinger. Then they search for Blaine the insane monorail, who might be able to get them to their next destination.

What is it about this book? I almost feel like a failure for not liking it so much. Goodreads is filled to the bursting with glowing reviews. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might have liked it more right after I’d read it, but since I binge-read the entire series at a go (and these are BIG books), the ending of the series as a whole spoilt most of the books that came before it. The only real exception to this rule is Book No. 4, Wizard and Glass. 

After all of the world building and game-board setting that the reader had to endure in The Drawing of the Three, Roland’s ‘ka-tet’ is almost complete – with the exception of Jake Chambers and Oy the billy bumbler, to whom we are introduced in this book. [The creation of the billybumbler? Pure genius]

The Waste Lands is a roadtrip book. The characters are constantly on the move, and their journey is peppered with notable incidents – gunfights, mental battles, even the odd sexual battle. (Yeah, that was pretty odd). It’s not a bad book, but it’s far too long and could have done with some paring down. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which as I understand it, wasn’t resolved for about a decade after this? That’s awful, and I’m glad I wasn’t a Stephen King fan living in the 90s.  Waiting two years for the next Harry Potter was torture enough, not to mention my current love-hate relationship with G.R.R. Martin. If you can look past the mangled language (or inexplicably happen to love it), and you don’t mind settling in for a long journey, then this is definitely the book for you. I’ve also begun to classify anything strange within the books as the natural consequences of Stephen King’s penchant for horror.

Next Review in this Series: The Dark Tower #4 – Wizard and Glass

Next Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Next Up: Feminist Concepts – Gender Roles Part I

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Title: Prentice Alvin
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1989
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.76
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2.5

Watch for Spoilers

prenticealvin

Plot Description: After his adventures with the Native Americans, Alvin finally reaches his birthplace for the long promised apprenticeship. The blacksmith under whom he is to learn is understandably put off by the fact that he’s about a year late. In the meantime, Peggy (the Torch from the first book) is finally ready to stop protecting him full time and get herself a life of her own. The very day Alvin is set to return to Hattrack Town, Peggy runs away. A subplot deals with a runaway slave girl who is determined to ensure that her child is born a free man.

Prentice Alvin is undoubtedly where the Alvin Maker series begins to spiral out of control. For the most part, the plot is boring, dealing with Alvin’s trials under the ornery Smith, who finds it difficult to decide whether to be jealous or greedy. The people around him continue to react to him in predictable ways – unconditional admiration, or jealous loathing, but obsessive in either case.

The runaway girl’s son is named Arthur Stuart, after the King of England of the time and adopted by Peggy Guester’s mother in the place of the daughter she had lost. Arthur Stuart grows up to completely adore Alvin and has a knack of mimicking voices and sounds perfectly, along with an eidetic memory.

I spoke about the theme of white guilt pervading Orson Scott Card’s writing in Red Prophet, and this theme becomes even more pronounced in Prentice Alvin. Card goes out of his way to emphasize the foulness and vileness of slavery as a practice, as if to ensure that the reader is left with no doubt as to Card’s stance on the issue. Unfortunately, Arthur Stuart is a complete nonentity of a character, surrounded by privileged white characters who devote their time and energy to protecting him from danger. He is the first non-white character to have a major role in this series (yes, it took three books) and he barely does anything at all.

Card’s worldview as far as Native Americans and African Americans are concerned is similar to the Orientalist perspective on Asian countries. Factors that are considered indigenous to that culture are upheld and applauded, while attempts at integrating factors that were until then unique to white cultures are looked down upon. For example, he decries the decisions of the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes to integrate with the American nation, and in his alternate universe, the Native Americans move away to form their own nation, on which Whites may never set foot. As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the ‘greensong’ has all but died out there, and will never return. That land is considered dead.

The problem with a privileged party taking up the cause of an oppressed party as a means of assuaging their own guilt is that the voices of the oppressed are once again passed over in favour of that of a member of the privileged class. In addition to this, Card’s interpretation of history is still largely white-centric, for all his moral lecturing, and black characters are yet to become a major part of the story of Alvin Maker.

Moreover, I’m one of those people who think that scenes depicting graphic violence towards demographics that have traditionally suffered much violence, and who are still quite vulnerable to violence should be avoided unless completely necessary to the plot. This is one of the biggest reasons why I stopped watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a major criticism I plan to bring up when I eventually review the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. A lot of GR reviews talk about how the adult content in this book prevents them from reading it to their kids, and I think that while the scenes in Prentice Alvin still fall under the heading of ‘Adult Content’ and not ‘Completely Unnecessary Pornographic Sensationalism’ (CUPS?) they were perhaps not entirely necessary to the plot. I can think of a few other ways in which the same information could have been imparted to the reader without using the scenes Card did in this book.

My final criticism of Prentice Alvin (which extends to the rest of the series as well) is how obsessively the story centres around Alvin now. The lives of every character – most prominently that of Peggy Guester – centres now around him. In one of the final scenes of the book, Alvin uses his powers to create his journeyman piece – a plow made of living gold. While the fantasy genre is no stranger to wild, weird concepts, it feels out of place in this series which largely rests on an atmosphere of American folk magic.

P.S.: I really don’t like the Alvin depicted on the cover above. He looks awfully smug and arrogant.

Next Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #4 – Alvin Journeyman

Book Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Title: The Drawing of the Three
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

A Few Important Spoilers Here and There

drawing of the three

Plot Description: In this sequel to The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead must meet three strangers who will help him on his quest – the Stranger, the Lady of Shadows and the Pusher. Together with new characters Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes, Roland journeys further along the path that he hopes will eventually lead him to the Dark Tower.

At this stage in the series, I was still pretty absorbed by the plot. This was despite the fact that the writing remained dry and cramped, and the whole time I was reading this book I felt like I was eating something completely tasteless out of some weird compulsion.

Fascination might actually be a better term for it, because in The Drawing of the Three, King actually introduces a few characters who are far more likeable and relatable than his Cowboy With An Extra Helping of Hero. The problem with Roland is that he’s presented as practically flawless – his only flaw is his singleminded determination to reach the Tower no matter what, and since that’s the whole point of the series, it’s not really considered a flaw. On the other hand, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are both extremely flawed characters who must balance their personal struggles with helping Roland on his quest. This is despite the fact that both of them were pulled unwillingly out of their respective lives – lives which take place in different decades in our modern world – by Roland the Selfish Hero.

Roland was last seen waking from his conversation with his old enemy Merlin, only to find that ten years have passed since he sat down to talk to the wizard, and that the wizard is now dead. I mention these facts because they are completely out of line with the story presented in later books (plothole alert!) where it says that a hundred years passed while he was talking to Merlin, not ten, and that Merlin isn’t dead after all. As an afterthought, Merlin’s continued existence is ret-conned and we’re told he faked his death. What purpose was served by this entire rigmarole is something we readers will forever remain in the dark about, unfortunately.

Eddie Dean is the Prisoner represented in the first of the tarot cards Merlin draws for Roland during their ‘palaver’. (Old fashioned terms like this one are overused to the point of exasperation throughout this series). Eddie, it turns out, is not a conventional prisoner, but a junkie – a prisoner to heroin. Roland first encounters him as he’s endeavouring to get a couple of bags of cocaine through customs as a drug mule in 1987, and he eventually pulls Eddie out of our world and into his, where Eddie begins to experience withdrawal and is taught in the ways of being a gunslinger by Roland.

Odetta Holmes is a crippled civil rights activist from 1964 who suffers from multiple personality disorder brought on by multiple traumas in her life – including the accident which caused her to lose her legs. Odetta is educated, soft spoken and non violent, and thus the complete opposite of her alter ego, Detta Walker. Detta is extremely violent and dangerous, harbours a burning hatred for white people – especially white men, is delusional, and speaks in an exaggerated caricature of the stereotype of an uneducated Afro-American. Just as with Eddie and his drug addiction, Roland helps Odetta and Detta confront reconcile their personalities, thus creating Susannah Dean.

Both Eddie and Susannah (who have fallen in love and consider themselves married) prove to be ‘natural gunslingers’, picking up the knack of fast shooting and other gunslinger characteristics extremely quickly. This is despite the fact that neither of them have ever trained for any sort of active physical life, and considering it took Roland and his childhood friends a decade before they could be considered trained gunslingers, I find this premise unlikely (and therefore an example of shoddy and lazy writing). Eddie and Susannah are ‘natural gunslingers’ only because the plot demands it of them.

The final person Roland comes face to face with is Jack Mort, a lowlife criminal sociopath with murderous tendencies. Throughout his life, the Pusher has attempted to kill numerous people, either by dropping heavy things on them from above, or by pushing them – into traffic (as in the case of Jake Chambers) or into the path of an oncoming train (as in the case of Susannah Dean). When Roland realizes that Jack Mort is responsible both for Jake’s initial death in The Gunslinger as well as for the loss of Susannah’s legs and the development of her Multiple Personality Disorder, he kills Jack in revenge, and to prevent him from killing Jake (again). Roland’s actions here also set up for the return of an alternate version of Jake Chambers in the next book, The Waste Lands.

The vibrant and unique personalities of Eddie and Susannah Dean are what saved this book as far as I was concerned. Indeed, the further this series progressed, the more it became clear to me that of the eventual quintet, Roland was the least interesting, the least worth saving.

While The Drawing of the Three is still pretty good as far as novels go, the series is fast approaching decline, which is why I’d never recommend it to anyone. Unless they were stuck in Mid World with Roland of Gilead and had nothing better to do.

Next in this Series: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Title: Red Prophet
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

There’s Bound To Be A Few Spoilers

 red prophet

Plot Description: Following the events of the previous book, in which Alvin was injured severely and had to learn how to heal his own leg, he’s now been pronounced well enough to go back to Hatrack River, where his father has arranged for him to be apprenticed to a blacksmith. While he’s travelling with his brother Measure, they’re kidnapped by ‘Reds’ – Native Americans – who are purportedly feuding with the settlers. This is how Alvin eventually reunites with the ‘Red Prophet’, whom he had previously met in the first book.

This book might just be my favourite out of the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but that being said, I have two words that come to mind when I think of this book: “White Guilt”.

Any story set in Frontier-era America would have to feature Native American tribes, and the interactions of the settlers with them. Alvin Maker is no exception, set as it is against a backdrop of constant fighting between the white settlers and the ‘Reds’. In addition to their battles with Native American tribes, the white settlers themselves are multicultural – English, Dutch, French etc – in origin, and engage in battles amongst themselves as well.

Red Prophet features two famous historical figures in Native American history – Tenskwa Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw. The two are depicted as brothers, the former a pacifist and the latter a warrior. Tenskwa Tawa briefly appeared in Seventh Son as Lolla-wasiky, an alcoholic Native American whose addiction held a debilitating hold over him, and who was cured of the same by a chance encounter with young Alvin. Red Prophet expands on his journey and history, and his relationship with his brother, as well as his future as a ‘prophet’ for the Native Americans – one that counsels that they stay away from alcohol.

In its essence, Red Prophet is a revisionist history of the Battle of Tippecanoe, recounted from a Native American perspective as a massacre of pacifist Natives led by Tenskwa Tawa. Tenskwa Tawa and his brother also take on roles as spiritual mentors to young Alvin, to better help him understand his powers.

Stories about the Native Americans have always fascinated me, because it refers to a whole world of people I’ve never met. And that’s why I like Red Prophet. It is commendable that Card’s revisionism allows for an alternate history told from the perspective of the loser, and not the winner. The fact remains, however that Card is not Native American.

It’s always difficult and problematic to write from a perspective that is not yours. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t, but one should also remember to add the caveat. To remember that the subjects of your writing may resent you for attempting to take over their voices and tell their stories on their behalf – again (Because lets be real, that’s what happens when the winners write history).

As for the rest, Red Prophet is perhaps one of the better (or the best) books in this series. It’s decently written, suspenseful in all the right places, and has only minor plot holes. The subplots involving Governor Harrison, Tippecanoe, the curse of bloody hands, mystical whirlwinds that exist outside the time and space paradigm all fit right into the story. There are few, if any elements that jar the reader out of this world of magical fantasy and into reality.

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Book Review: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily

Title: The Golden Lily
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2012
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3.5

Spoilers… and all that.

The golden lily

Plot Description: In the course of her new assignment protecting Jill Mastrano at Palm Springs, Sydney Sage gains new insight into the working of her organization – the Alchemists, about rogue vampire hunters who call themselves grandiose and cultish names, and even goes on a couple dates. Oh, and there’s like, fighting and stuff at the end.

Anyway, the progress of Sydney and Adrian’s relationship in Golden Lily is wonderful to watch. They start looking out for each other, thinking about each other’s mood, doing little things to cheer the other person up. They went from strangers to friends in Bloodlines, and Golden Lily upgraded the S.S. Sydrian to best friendShip.

One of the biggest themes of the Bloodlines series is Sydney’s journey from being a brainwashed bigot to someone more sensible – someone capable of thinking rationally. In Golden Lily, she’s already seeing the Moroi and dhampirs around her as people, caring about their problems in the human sense rather than as logistical issues standing in the way of the mission. But she’s still not completely free of bias – and in this she can’t exactly be blamed because it’s a bias shared by the rest of the supernatural world (with perhaps the exception of the Keepers). Humans and vampires don’t mix, don’t date, don’t marry, don’t interbreed.

      He reached out and pulled me to him, one hand on my waist and the other behind my neck. He tipped my head up and lowered his lips to mine. I closed my eyes and melted as my whole body was consumed in that kiss. I was nothing. I was everything. Chills ran over my skin, and fire burned inside me. His body pressed closer to mine, and I wrapped my arms around his neck. His lips were warmer and softer than anything I could have ever imagined, yet fierce and powerful at the same time. Mine responded hungrily, and I tightened my hold on him. His fingers slid down the back of my neck, tracing its shape, and every place they touched was electric.
      But perhaps the best part of all was that I, Sydney Katherine Sage, guilty of constantly analyzing the world around me, well, I stopped thinking.
      And it was glorious.
      At least, it was until I started thinking again.

The pacing is just right, bearing in mind the fact that this series is six books long, and we’re still only on the second. Sydney’s progress is phenomenal, but not enough. The notion of humans and vampires dating is also explored outside of the Sydrian dynamic – notably with regard to Jill’s relationship with the human boy Micah, or Angeline’s background as coming from a family of Keepers.

A major factor which has no doubt helped along the process of removing Sydney’s bias is her tutelage in the use of human magic under Jaclyn Terwilliger. In the final, climactic scenes of Golden Lily, Sydney uses a number of magical items and spells in the course of a battle, to their ultimate advantage. Once again, the pacing is perfect.

Golden Lily (and by extension the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series) are a wonderful exercise in perceptions, and how drastically changing perceptions can alter the narrative as we see it. Vampire Academy saw the Moroi world through the eyes of a perceptive dhampir who wasn’t afraid to question norms – and on occasion, through the eyes of a privileged Moroi. Bloodlines sees the Moroi world through the eyes of a human who was brought up to fear and hate the supernatural, and that of a Moroi guy battling Spirit induced mental illness. When one adds in the storylines of Mia Rinaldi, or Dimitri’s family in Baia, or Angeline of the Keepers, the Vampire Academy universe takes on further depth and meaning, becoming a layered entity.

Without a doubt, Golden Lily is still very much Sydney’s story – her quest to discover the truths that her Alchemist bosses are hiding from her, the truths behind the cult of vampire hunters, her continued efforts to protect her little pack of Moroi and dhampir, her study of magic, and yes, her struggle with body image and eating disorders. Adrian’s final chapter intervention might have seemed ham handed if it weren’t for the fact that his lecture came – at least in my opinion – several books late.

    I handed the gelato back. “I can’t. Not with you watching. It’s too weird. Can I eat it later?”
    “Sure,” he said, returning it to the freezer. “If you’ll really eat it. I know how you are.”
    I crossed my arms as he stood opposite me. “Oh?”
    He fixed me with a disconcertingly hard look. “Maybe everyone else thinks your aversion to food is cute—but not me. I’ve watched you watch Jill. Here’s some tough love: you will never, ever have her body. Ever. It’s impossible. She’s Moroi. You’re human. That’s biology. You have a great one, one that most humans would kill for—and you’d look even better if you put on a little weight. Five pounds would be a good start. Hide the ribs. Get a bigger bra size.”
    “Adrian!” I was aghast. “You… are you out of your mind? You have no right to tell me that! None at all.”
    He scoffed. “I have every right, Sage. I’m your friend, and no one else is going to do it. Besides, I’m the king of unhealthy habits. Do you think I don’t know one when I see it? I don’t know where this came from—your family, too many Moroi, or just your own OCD nature—but I’m telling you, you don’t have to do it.”

And yet, it’s also beginning to show us how Bloodlines is as much about Adrian as it is about Sydney. The Vampire Academy series was forever Rose Hathaway’s story – there’s no doubt about that. Everyone else, Dimitri and Lissa included, were supporting characters. But Golden Lily begins to dip into Adrian’s family, his background, his psyche, building the set up for what I would call one of the finest depictions of battling mental illness I’ve ever read.

Next in this series: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card

 

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