With Stephen King finishing the series a few years back, I had been meaning to return to The Dark Tower for quite some time. My review of The Waste Lands dates from January 2012, so it was high time to give the fourth installment a shot. And given that Wizard and Glass turned out to be the best of the bunch thus far, I'm glad I elected to do so!
With many of the new releases failing to truly capture my imagination these last couple of months, I'm planning on finishing King's magnum opus before the end of 2016. The same goes for Jacqueline Carey's first Kushiel trilogy. I know that it's important that I should review a lot of new books every year. The SFF blogosphere is a great place to help spread the word about quality reads and the reason why publishers send out review copies in the first place. Still, the number of "older" titles and series I want to read keeps growing (well over 200 novels as far as I'm concerned), so I will have to find a way to create a better balance between newer and older published works that I review from now on.
Here's the blurb:
Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Jake’s pet bumbler survive Blaine the Mono’s final crash, only to find themselves stranded in an alternate version of Topeka, Kansas, one that has been ravaged by the superflu virus. While following the deserted I-70 toward a distant glass palace, they hear the atonal squalling of a thinny, a place where the fabric of existence has almost entirely worn away. While camping near the edge of the thinny, Roland tells his ka-tet a story about another thinny, one that he encountered when he was little more than a boy. Over the course of one long magical night, Roland transports us to the Mid-World of long-ago and a seaside town called Hambry, where Roland fell in love with a girl named Susan Delgado, and where he and his old tet-mates Alain and Cuthbert battled the forces of John Farson, the harrier who—with a little help from a seeing sphere called Maerlyn’s Grapefruit—ignited Mid-World’s final war.
Early on, worldbuilding did not play much of a role in the series. Stephen King played his cards pretty close to his chest, and readers learned next to nothing about the series' universe in both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. Everything changed in The Waste Lands, which was great. To begin with, the author finally elaborated on the physics by which the world operates, especially the six beams running between twelve portals which mark the edges of Mid-World. And standing at the point where the beams cross at the center of the universe lies the Dark Tower. A few hints seemed to indicate that the Dark Tower might lie at the center of all worlds. With more revelations regarding the Guardians of the Beam and the layout of the land, it became abundantly clear that tale resounded with depth. And Wizard and Glass turned it up a notch or two.
Sadly, this fourth volume suffers from a lackluster beginning. Understandably, it begins right where its predecessor ended, with the ka-tet squaring off against Blaine the Mono in a contest of riddles. Problem is, this face-off drags for too long. Once done, the four of them appear to find themselves in the version of our world that King depicted in The Stand. During their journey, Blaine needs to recharge its batteries at the Fall of the Hounds, a massive waterfall with two enormous stone protrusions shaped like snarling dog heads. It is implied that the technology used to recharge the train could predate the civilization of the Old Ones. As always, I continue to hope that we'll learn much more about the Dark Tower's universe's past. Indeed, I find all those little tantalizing glimpses to be quite fascinating.
I knew that one of the books in the series was mostly a flash-back sequence, but I wasn't aware that it was Wizard and Glass. As I'm all about back stories, I relished the opportunity to discover more about Roland's past. I must admit that it felt a bit weird at first, what with King leaving the ka-tet hanging as they first encounter the mysterious dimensional hole the Gunslinger calls a thinny and focusing on Roland's tale as he recounts to the others his own first encounter with the strange phenomenon. Having said that, very quickly we realize that this side-story will shape Roland in a profound way and make us understand how he became the man he is today. From then on, I was enthralled and didn't want this tale to reach its end.
As a no-nonsense kind of cowboy, Roland of Gilead immediately became a fan favorite. Although the first two installments featured an interesting supporting cast, the main focus essentially remained on Roland. What differentiated The Waste Lands from its predecessors was that Eddie, Susannah, and Jake truly came into their own and took their rightful place in the narrative. It became obvious that all three would play important roles in what was to come. Hence, to discover that Wizard and Glass focused on an entire cast of new men and women felt like quite a gamble. But in a few short chapters, Stephen King sets our minds at ease and it's a pleasure to follow Roland, Alain, and Cuthbert, as they discover that there is a devious plot between the elite of Barony of Mejis and John "The Good Man" Farson, whose rebel faction has already started a war in the North, being hatched with no one the wiser. Add some interesting characters like Susan Delgado, the witch Rhea of the Cöos, and the Big Coffin Hunters, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a terrific story. Though young and inexperienced, Roland and his companions come to realize that all is not well in Hambry, and they must rely on their foes' underestimating them to get to the root of the conspiracy. The tragic love story between Roland and Susan gave the whole flash-back sequence an emotional punch that leaves no one indifferent.
It actually feels weird to return to the "present" once Roland's tale is done. But as the book comes to an end and the Gunslinger makes other revelations about his past, revelations which explain why he's been searching for the Dark Tower for all these years, King closes the show on a high note that makes you beg for more. Wizard and Glass is indeed the best volume in the series so far and sets the bar quite high for what will come next.