Last fall, for some unknown reason, I felt the need to read an "old" Stephen King title. Most of the 2014 SFF releases failed to make a good impression on me and I was looking for something tried, tested and true. Like most genre readers my age, I spent my teenage years reading King's many classics. And yet, somehow I never read the first collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub. Hence, The Talisman appeared to be just what the doctor ordered. So I bought the book and put it on the pile and it became part of the rotation.
When I received confirmation that I'd be spending the month of February traveling around the Philippines, the novel immediately went into my suitcase. I was wondering if this 30-year-old work had aged well and would "wow" today's readers the way it did when it was originally published in 1984. For this was considered by some critics to be the most extraordinary fantasy novel of our time. The fantasy genre was a much different place back in the early 80s. This was the time of the Tolkien clones, when writers like Terry Brooks and David Eddings dominated the bestseller lists. Only Stephen R. Donaldson and a few other authors wrote "adult" fantasy books, which is probably why The Talisman made such an impression back in the day. In today's market, I'm not sure such a work would meet with the same critical success.
Be that as it may, this novel makes for compulsive reading! Other than some musical and cultural references from the 60s, 70s, and early 80s which may not ring any bell with some younger readers, this 921-page doorstopper work has aged particularly well. Many of King's early bestsellers share that special "timelessness" which explains how they can still sell so well decades after being released. King and Straub's The Talisman definitely falls into that category.
Here's the blurb:
Jack Sawyer, twelve years old, is about to begin a most fantastic journey, an exalting, terrifying quest for the mystical Talisman—the only thing that can save Jack’s dying mother. But to reach his goal, Jack must make his way not only across the breadth of the United States but also through the wondrous and menacing parallel world of the Territories. In the Territories, Jack finds another realm, where the air is so sweet and clear a man can smell a radish being pulled from the ground a mile away—and a life can be snuffed out instantly in the continuing struggle between good and evil. Here Jack discovers “Twinners,” reflections of the people he knows on earth—most notably Queen Laura, the Twinner of Jack’s own imperiled mother. As Jack “flips” between worlds, making his way westward toward the redemptive Talisman, a sequence of heart-stopping encounters challenges him at every step. An unforgettable epic of adventure and resounding triumph, The Talisman is one of the most influential and highly praised works of fantasy ever written.
The tale takes place in our own world and in another dimension known as the Territories. I found it interesting that something occurring in the Territories, even something innocuous, could have grave repercussions in our own universe. Young Jack quickly realizes that he must be extremely careful while he travels through the Territories. Though I enjoyed how the Territories were depicted, I would have liked the authors to be more forthcoming with their revelations regarding this parallel universe and how it works. More information regarding how and why some people can travel between both dimensions would also have been appreciated. I reckon readers get to learn more in the sequel, Black House, but it would have been nice to see them elaborate a bit more on the various fascinating concepts and ideas inherent to the Territories.
Understandably, the principal POV character is 12-year-old Jack Sawyer, who must journey to the Territories to find the only thing that can help save his dying mother, and by doing so save the parallel universe as well. I found young Jack to be a well-drawn and genuine protagonist. Morgan Sloat, on the other hand, was too "evil" and just a generic bad guy. The occasional points of view of Lily, Jack's mother, and Richard, his best friend, allow readers to see events unfold through the eyes of other people. And the supporting cast is made up of a few memorable characters, chief among them Wolf, Speedy Parker, and Sunlight Gardener.
The size of this book had me concerned about pacing issues. I was afraid that the pace would drag in certain portions of the story. But in the end, the rhythm remains more or less fluid throughout the novel. Sure, there are parts in which everything slows down a bit. And yet, the tale picks up soon afterward, so that's never a problem. Stephen King and Peter Straub's collaboration captures your imagination early on and refuses to let go. Hence, though The Talisman weighs in at more than 900 pages, I found myself going through it much more rapidly than I ever thought I would. Following Jack's quest for the Talisman is one grand adventure that keeps you turning those pages, over and over again!
There was no clash of writing styles that I could perceive as I read the book. Though it was written by two successful writers that were at the time at the top of their game, the prose flows well and there is no sign that this work was produced by two men with different narrative voices.
If you are looking for a big, sprawling fantasy novel that pretty much delivers on all fronts, The Talisman is definitely for you!