It would not be anywhere approaching accurate or just to think I can pass judgement on the Dark Tower series as a whole. What follows is the briefest of summaries on the seven novels by Stephen King that make up The Dark Tower. I would recommend you read the series but if you don’t care about spoilers these are my brief takes.
This was the first fantasy series I was ever introduced to. Probably around the time I saw a trailer for this thing called “The Lord of the Rings” I was handed another book, a slim paperback with some dude in a longcoat with a revolver and a raven on the cover that read, “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.”
Now about ten years later I’m trying to re-read the books, a process which like writing the Dark Tower series started off regular, lapsed, and am now in a more or less consistent frenzy, thankee-sai Audible.
What strikes me more about this series more than anything else as I re-read/listen to these first three books is the overwhelming weirdness. The juxtaposition (there’s a $5 word) of western, fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, modern-for-the-time-it-was-written fiction. It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to think of a fantasy universe where the knights traded in their swords for six guns but Dark Tower goes so much farther than that.
The idea of the series doesn’t come towards anything approaching clarity until the third book. In The Waste Lands Roland gives voice to the idea that if he can reach the Dark Tower he can fix the general fucked-upness of the universe. The World Has Moved On but only then does Roland actually state that this might be something fixable and that could be a desirable goal.
I called the first book a series of vignettes. Episodic would be the more precise word (supplied to me by TVtropes).
The second book suffers more from its weirdness than the first book. The first book you’re kind of down for this. The individual episodes the text portrays are good even if they’re individually better than the sum of their parts. They sort of distract you from the overall jumbled together nature of the story. The second book, Drawing of the Three, we’re at the beach, our main character is walking to find random doors free standing along the sand. There is no explanation how they work or why they exist.
The third book is where we start to glimpse the narrative. The plot sheds off the more experimental episodic weirdness of the first two books and gets linear both in terms of presentation and literal time. The book starts with them finding The Beam. The Beam is a kind of air current/psychic force criss-crossing Roland’s world. Roland says The Beam will take them to the Dark Tower. He believes that the apocalypse that seems to be evident around them can be reversed at the Dark Tower. Roland is ironically very right that the reset button for everything can be found there.
More than half and less than two-thirds of the third book, The Waste Lands, is spent getting Jake back into the story. It works but my christ does it take a long time to get there. I want to say that maybe any less time spent and their solution, in the end they literally draw a door in the dirt and pull Jake through it, would feel too blatant or silly. But the characters are all getting psychic visions to tell them exactly how to do this. The last act of the book sees them entering Lud, a ruined city repeatedly equated with Manhattan in terms of size and appearance. Here they meet Blaine the Mono, a self-aware train who offers them a deal for their lives.
The fourth book benefits greatly by telling a linear straightforward story. First comes the Riddle Contest for their lives with Blaine the Train He’s a Pain. They win. They arrive in this alternate universe version of Topeka, Kansas where The Stand novel by Stephen King has happened. They need to find the path of the Beam. But the sight of this giant green, possibly Emerald palace in the distance fills them with disquiet. Remember, this is exactly one day after they reached Lud. Jake’s been with them for maybe a month, maybe a couple weeks after they bring him into the world? My point is that no one really understands Roland or his quest so in the 4th Book Roland sits them down for his motherfucking backstory.
There’s an elephant in the room with regard to the 5th, 6th, and 7th books. The first four books were released in 1982, 1987, 1991, and 1997. The last three books were released in 2003, 2004, and then again in the 2004. George RR Martin, eat your heart out. They were released in quick succession after Stephen King got hit by a van while walking on June 19th, 1999. This is why the number 19 keep popping up in these last three books. These last three feel different they feel unified they feel like they were written in quick succession.
It’s not fair to compare these Dark Tower Apples to the Song of Ice & Fire Oranges. Because the last three books benefit greatly from a cascading series of Deus Ex Machinas so rapid you almost lose sight of them. And they’re completely intentional, in the universe, The Writer, Stephen Goddamned King, is literally writing them in a way to help the characters.
There’s a saying I heard in the last few months about writing adventures for D&D. When you don’t know what to write for the players’ next adventure, rip off the Seven Samurai. Sure enough, Book Five, Wolves of the Calla, is in very large part a kind of easing back into these characters and the universe through a Kurosawa ripoff.
Book Six is the one I thought I hated the most, although going back through the series I’m now not sure that’s the case. What I can say is that you can sum up Song of Susannah in about a page or two and then safely ignore it in the scheme of the larger plot. It is very much prep work for the last book which is almost double the length of the sixth book.
I think the seventh book is the best one. The gloves are off. With its opening scenes of Father Callahan and Jake charging into the Dixie Pig and Mia/Susannah giving birth to Mordred, these scenes communicate that This Is The Last Book. I like the kind of bleakness to it as the Ka-Tet is slowly whittled down to Roland and a deus ex machina character who are the only ones left to confront the Crimson King outside the Dark Tower. There’s a weight to the last book, not literal (although it is the longest book of the series) but emotional that fills every section.
You also get a sense of how the story changes over the time it was written. There are no references to The Beam until the 3rd book. There are no references to the Crimson King until the 4th book (someone fact check this). The 1st book underwent rewrites to bring it in line with the last three books, one of these edits includes putting in a reference to the Crimson King. Even Roland’s final moments of the first book are put in a different context. In the rest of the books, it’s said that Roland sleeps for ten years on that beach to find Walter dead. Really Walter just puts his black robe on a skeleton. The Calla folk in the 5th book have a very distinct way of speaking that is mimicked by all of the other characters in the book from that book on, even the non-calla people.
It’s only in trying to summarize the entire story do you get a sense of the Deus Ex Machinas that run things and would eventually come to be very intentional and 4th Wall Breaking. The first book introduces Roland and sets up his Western/Fantasy/Post-Apocalyptic world. The second book introduces our other main characters. Why are they there? Because destiny says they have to be. The third book gives us our main story and more worldbuilding. We have to get to the Dark Tower to fix the world. Also here’s a Giant Bear Robot, it’s thousands of years old, and it’s falling apart. So is everything else in this world. Book 4 could be considered an aside but it’s such a damn good story with Young Roland. Book 5 is about Stephen King getting back into the swing of things. They walk right into this plot also about Ancient Robots and magical artifacts are laid square across their path. Book 6 is setup for the endgame. The characters all split up and have adventures across space and time. They meet Stephen King and convince him he has to finish the story. And book 7 is that endgame. Once again the plot lies square in the path of our heroes. They reunite and take the fight to their enemy. One by one they are whittled down until only Roland remains. Finally the story ends. By now the ending might’ve entered into pop culture osmosis. People have Opinions about it.
If you have however long it takes you to read/listen to seven Song of Ice and Fire size books I would recommend you give Dark Tower a chance. The 4th book is the most accessible yet I have a hard time telling you, “please consume almost half this series, it gets really good like 60 hours in.” I think if you enjoy the first book you can soldier through the next two.
I would recommend you try to read the books before watching The Movie with Idris Elba. I enjoyed the movie but I can’t defend it at all. There’s a new series coming out on Amazon, based on one of the actors maybe being a character from the 4th book and the IMDB summary it sounds like it focuses on “young” Roland which was the basis of the comic books they made on the Dark Tower. We’ll see how it goes but I’ll mark out for it.
Long days and pleasant nights.