Book Reviews, Novels

Stephen King’s the Dark Tower (1982-2012) — a ranking

a series of seven, sometimes eight, novels

[ ranking | review ]

The Dark Tower, as a series, was defined by its ups and downs. An addictive yarn though it was, it was easy to find myself both adoring each page to seething in rage at cheesy turns. Perhaps this prevents the series from reaching a place alongside the Lord of the Rings or the Book of the New Sun as a definitive fantasy, but it doesn’t mean the series isn’t a classic. (The Chronicles of Narnia is heavily impaired by its frequent downs — and gross religious dogma, racism, and misogyny — as well, and still remains required reading.)

Below are my rankings and feelings on each book in Stephen King’s magnum opus — how they compare, how they shape and contribute to Roland Deschain’s quest for the Dark Tower.

7. The Drawing of the Three (II: 1987)

Given my issues with the characters, it’s no surprise this is on the bottom of my list. The Drawing of the Three ain’t bad, but it’s also 650 pages devoted to introducing one unlikable character after another. Following the whiplash pace of the Gunslinger, I was raring to race into Roland’s quest. I didn’t want to squat on a dreary beach, slowly rolling through three separate stories, each introducing a separate character. Eddie’s as awful as always, and the introduction of Susannah / Detta / Odetta is a repetitive, exhausting drama. The lobstrosities were cool, but I still felt like we made no progress in the quest for the Dark Tower.

6. Wolves of the Calla (V: 2003)

Wolves of the Calla was just bloated: A bloated re-telling of the Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai in Mid-World. As we’re coming closer to the series’ end, Wolves is steeped in references to the coming adventures and to the Dark Tower itself, but the main quest of defending a small town against ‘wolves’ — robots that kidnap children while wielding lightsabers (Star Wars) and exploding snitches (Harry Potter) — feels completely isolated, and like another roadblock. Most of the book is spent standing around, talking to and impressing townsfolk, making and losing friends. The subsequent books attempt to explain the importance of the ‘wolves’ within the lore, but it doesn’t stick. This story just feels unimportant to the greater narrative, made worse by not being very interesting.

5. Song of Susannah / The Dark Tower (VI & VII: 2004)

Song of Susannah is the least-favorite of most readers. It doesn’t stand on its own at all, and reads as a 500-page prologue to the events of the Dark Tower. I feel like I have to take these two as a single, monstrous final novel. (That, or the first 300 pages of the Dark Tower should have gone to the prior book.) Song‘s mostly set on Earth, our world, and it doesn’t have much in the way of a quest arc. Stephen King, the character, is introduced, and Mordred’s tale is kicked into high gear. Despite not having its own story, I loved the atmosphere — moving from Mid-World to ’70s and ’90s NE USA was great. Contrary to popular opinions, I loved the inclusion of Stephen King as a character. I found him neither obnoxious or self-important, but rather self-deprecating: The real King’s way of criticizing himself for his shortcomings as a writer, and for not finishing the series earlier, for disappointing so many people (including himself).

The final novel mostly stuck with this. Algul Siento — a town in control of the Crimson King’s minions, and the setting for roughly 20% of the novel — was poorly-realized and I hated every minute there. The real-world setting is mind-bending, as always. Randall Flagg’s end is immensely unsatisfying. The Mordred story peters out across a barren wasteland, but provides some gut-wrenching scenes anyway. We lose a lot of friends. The White Lands of Empathica and the creature Dandelo provide some amazing (and amazingly-weird) scenery. A deus ex machina is introduced in the last 100 pages as a deus ex machina, ruining the thrill of the final approach to the Tower. The Crimson King himself is, well…I can’t say I expected him to be an old man chucking bombs and screaming obscenities in all caps from a balcony. He was more like Donkey Kong than a clever or interesting villain. There was no need for the Coda (in which Stephen King, the writer, warns the reader they are about to be disappointed by a disappointing ending, and please stop reading here — unless you’re one of his hardcore readers that just has to know, in which case keep reading, but please don’t complain to him about it after you’re inevitably disappointed) that creates an infinite time loop for Roland’s story. I get it: Stories are eternal. It still doesn’t make much sense in the lore, and seems downright lazy.

4. The Gunslinger (I: 1982 / rev. 2003)

The Gunslinger is sharp. It’s amazing that Stephen King wrote (or at least conceptualized) much of this at 22 years old. (It was heavily revised in 2003 to fix that youthful naivete. This placing is for the current edition, which is, I’m told, leagues ahead of the original mess.) It’s the purest mixture of western and horror. Shootouts, desolate wastelands and dying farms, mines full-a mutants — all of this takes place in a mere 250 pages, with Roland hunting the longtime King villain Randall Flagg. No distractions — no bloated scenes — no words wasted. ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,’ Roland’s story famously begins.

3. The Waste Lands (III: 1991)

The Waste Lands exemplifies my love-hate relationship with Stephen King over the years. The city of Lud — a post-apocalyptic, mutant- and monster-filled vision of New York City –, the mythology around the guardians of the beams, and the whole psychotic AI angle are highlights of the entire series, but the pacing of these stories is garbage. The first third of the Waste Lands — long before we meet Blaine — is a pain. After a short prologue featuring Richard Adams’ bear-god Shardik (one of the guardians of the beam), we’re thrust into another isolated character introduction for young Jake Chambers. This entire, bloated section of the novel feels out of place: It feels, quite honestly, like Stephen King simply changed his mind about not drawing Jake Chambers into the story in the Drawing of the Three, and doubled back on that novel’s boring structure to introduce yet another character. It’s awful. But everything before and after represent what makes this series so addictive.

2. The Wind Through the Keyhole (IV ½: 2012)

The Wind Through the Keyhole is, like the Gunslinger, like Wizard and Glass, like the best of Stephen King, tightly structured and bloat-free. This tale — being a story within a story within a story (within, in the greater scope of the series, yet another story) — is almost John Barth-like in its scope and playfulness. This is a campfire yarn: While waiting out a storm near the setting of Wolves of the Calla, Roland recounts a meeting with shapeshifters that nearly ended his life, and within that story, recounts a folkloric tale about a young boy who must go on an epic adventure to save his family from a drunken, murderous lout. Along the way, we meet dragons, swamp monsters (& swamp men), ancient magicians, etc. About the only issue I take with it is the excuse that it belongs nestled between the Dark Tower‘s fourth and fifth books. Forcing the frame narrative with Susannah et al. sitting around yet another campfire (the entirety of Wizard and Glass, the preceding book, took place around a campfire) really kills the flow of the Roland’s urgent quest, particularly since it’s never referenced again.

1. Wizard and Glass (IV: 1997)

This book changed my views on King. I prefer sci-fi; I prefer horror; I prefer even literary fiction, but the fourth Dark Tower novel is the highest class of fantasy fiction. Wizard and Glass is the backstory of Roland Deschain and his lost love, Susan Delgado. A 750-page diversion for backstory had me nervous — we already had a diversion with the second book, so readers are raring to get into the meat of Roland’s quest. Even though this novel’s a beast, even though it’s 90% backstory (and a romance, at that), it carries a breakneck pace, and nothing seems out of place. The ending’s twists and turns are superb, telegraphed since the novel opens. There’s no insane deus ex machina or spider aliens or what-have-youse: Wizard and Glass is perhaps the tightest novel King’s ever written, and I loved it dearly.

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