To begin with, some basic information: The Dark Tower is a series of seven books written by Stephen King. There are also other books in King's catalog that are tied to the Dark Tower universe, but this web page will be limited to just the seven "main" books. I started reading the series when the large-size paperback edition of the first book came out in the 1980s (I was either in late high school or early college at the time, which pegs it around the mid-to-late 80s). I've been buying each new book as it came out in that large paperback format, and re-reading the entire series with each new book. The exception to that pattern is the last three books - they came out so closely together that I waited until I got all three (for Christmas in 2005) and then read the whole series from start to finish. But enough about me, back to the books...
The Dark Tower concept started as a group of short stories that King wrote, beginning as far back as his college years. King himself has said that he was feeling an urge to write an epic-length story, and when he came up with the opening sentence ("The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.") and tied it to a poem that he had read ("Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"), he knew he was on to something. I believe the short stories were published in various magazines, but the project really took off when they were gathered together, edited to flow as one long story, and published as the book The Gunslinger.
That first book stands on its own as the tale of a gunslinger named Roland who is chasing the Man in Black (no, not Johnny Cash) across the desert. While the first book is a complete story by itself, the ending raises more questions than it answers, and in particular we learn of the Dark Tower and Roland's life-long quest to find it and climb to the top. It was clear that book one was not the whole story, and there would be more to follow. This book does a good job of introducing the main character along with some of his backstory - he's a descendant of a King Arthur figure, and in his world gunslingers are the equivalent of knights of the round table. Roland was raised and trained from childhood to carry on the family's gunslinging authority. We learn of the world that he lives in - it's a world similar to the American old west, but with enough leftover technology to make the reader wonder if maybe this story is set on some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth (at this point, I don't think even the author knew for sure). One big difference from the Earth we know is that magic works in Roland's world (as embodied in the character of the Man in Black, who at this point is a vaguely defined wizard). There are also demons and mutants, the latter possibly being more proof of a nuclear holocaust. The tone of this book is unlike anything else I've ever read of King's - it reads like a real novel, and not like something he's hoping to turn into a movie script. Which makes sense, since most of it was written before he became a famous author, and the rest of the series was written after King's books started getting filmed on a regular basis. This first gunslinger book is dark and gritty and "real", even though it's set in a fantasy world. It has by far the least dialog of any King book that I've read. The story is set entirely in Roland's world and, with the exception of one character who is introduced late in the book, does not cross paths with our modern-day Earth very much. And, most interesting of all, the main character is not a very sympathetic one - in fact, he's a real hardcase who will do whatever it takes to get to the Tower, and won't hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way.
If I remember right, King kind of dragged his heels a bit after that first book came out, but eventually the demands of his readers for a sequel spawned the book The Drawing of the Three. Roland continues his journey, but due to an injury sustained early in the book his health quickly deteriorates. He needs help, and fortunately finds some magic doors that let him slip into the minds of various people living in our world (specifically, in New York city). As the title implies, he ends up "drawing" three people (but not necessarily the three you would expect) through the doors and into his world.
This is, in my opinion, where the series started going downhill. From reading many, many other reviews, I realize that this isn't going to be a popular opinion. Most people seem to be of the opinion that the first book is the weakest of the bunch, and that the story didn't really pick up until the characters from "our" world were added. I'm of the opposite opinion - the first book is probably the best one in the series (with the possible exception of the fourth book, which I'll get to) specifically because it sticks to Roland's fantasy world. It seems like a huge cheat to introduce characters from the real world into a fantasy story. It's as if the author doesn't trust his readers to be able to relate to entirely fictional characters from an entirely fictional world - we need "real" people who we can identify with. And from reading the reviews on Amazon, it seems that most readers agree with that assessment. To me, dragging people from the real world into a fantasy story just seems like a lame technique that is overused by authors who can't come up with a rich enough world to sustain the reader's interest on its own. The only series that I can think of off the top of my head where this "transplanted characters" cliché works well is The Chronicles of Narnia, and those are kids' books for cripe's sake. The Dark Tower books are most definitely not intended for children. And the real shame here is that King has created a rich enough universe in Roland's world that it could have stood on its own.
On the other hand, it is kind of interesting to read about Roland's reaction to our world, and the wonders it contains. Seeing modern technology in prime working order just blows his mind. One could also make the argument that there should be characters from another world because later we discover that Roland is not just searching for the Dark Tower, he's actually trying to save it from being destroyed. And all of existence hinges on the Tower reaming whole. So characters from all worlds have a stake in saving the Tower. But if that's the case, why add three characters that are all from the same place (New York, although it later turns out that they're not all necessarily from our New York)? Shouldn't there be a protagonist or two from worlds other than Roland's and ours?
It's a shame that King had to break the "feel" of the story by shifting from Roland's world and spending most of a book in "our" world. Something he would continue to do way too many times throughout the rest of the series. And the method of bringing those characters in - magic doors that Roland just happens to find on a beach of all places. In the first book, it took a powerful magician (the Man in Black) to bring a character across, and that character had to die in our world for it to happen. The doors don't make any logical sense either - when Roland goes through, only his mind comes into our world, and he ends up inside someone else's body. When the characters from our world come through the door, their bodies physically come through. And later in the series, when Roland goes through, his physical body goes through. A little consistency would have been nice. A lot less traveling between worlds would have been even nicer.
OK, rant over. The second book adds companions for Roland, and they just happen to be from our world. What's done is done. The new characters save Roland's life. They initially hate him for kidnapping them from their own world, and fear him because he's a dangerous, gun-toting hardass. But by the end of the book they've come to accept him and their new situation, and somewhat reluctantly join his quest for the Tower (not that they have much choice - the doors are no longer available for them to return to the world they came from).
By the third book, The Waste Lands, King seems to have started having some idea of the larger overall story. We find out there are "beams" of power that are holding the Tower up. The main characters find the source point of one of these beams, and now have a clear path to follow to the Tower. Roland is getting along better with his new crew - so much so that he decides to start training them as apprentice gunslingers (to improve his odds of reaching the tower, no doubt). But there is one big problem - Roland is losing his mind. Something he did in the second book created a temporal paradox (hmmm, that's certainly not an overused idea), causing Roland to have two sets of conflicting memories. The concept is somewhat flawed (hopefully I'll remember to cover that in the section for people who have read the books), but eventually the situation is resolved by the return of a character who had disappeared from the story in the first book.
Once that plotline is wrapped up, the book changes to a completely different plot. The characters continue their journey along the beam, and eventually come to a decaying city called Lud. It has been overrun by two aging gangs, who are gradually destroying the city by warring with each other. Our heroes discover that the area beyond the city is a radioactive wasteland (thus the book's title), and the only way to cross it is via a homicidal, artificially intelligent monorail. No, seriously. So the second half of the book tells of their interactions with the gangs and their attempts to board and start the monorail. The book ends with a major cliffhanger, and once again King left the story sitting that way until fans began to howl for the next book.
The first time I read book four of the Dark Tower series, Wizard And Glass, it irritated me to no end. The cliffhanger from the previous book is wrapped up (in a method "borrowed" directly from an old Star Trek episode, as one Amazon reviewer correctly pointed out), but the vast majority of the book is dedicated to a lengthy flashback where we learn about an adventure that Roland had in his youth, just after becoming an apprentice gunslinger himself. Once I got over the fact that King was delaying the quest for the tower and breaking away from the characters (other than Roland) that he had spent the last two books developing, I eventually came to like this story-within-a-story. It took a couple readings, but this has become one of my favorite parts of the Dark Tower saga. A big reason for this is because the tone returns to that of the first book, and the flashback story is set entirely in Roland's world. His companions for this adventure, who up until this point have mostly been glimpsed only in brief flashbacks and stories that Roland as told, are from his own place and time. The book hits a nice balance of using modern English and fictional words, grammar and idioms of Roland's world. Later in the series, King would stick more and more "Roland-speak" into the books, and eventually it gets to the point of being overdone. Still, after reading the whole series in one shot, I occasionally find myself thinking of phrases like "for your father's sake" and others.
The tale from Roland's youth has a decidedly unhappy ending, so if that sort of thing bothers you then you might want to consider skipping this series. It could be argued that the ending is yet another example of how much Roland is willing to sacrifice to reach the Tower, but really the tragic events of the ending are out of his control. Once the flashback is over, our band of heroes sets out again, and encounters a startling crossover with the universe of the book The Stand. A villain from the previous book comes back, but for basically no purpose - he ends up being easily dispatched. This begins a trend of increasingly powerful bad guys who are built up in the story only to amount to a big anti-climax in the end. Aside from dragging people from "our" world into the story, this is probably my biggest gripe against the Dark Tower story. The whole crossover with The Stand, which really got me excited because that's my favorite Stephen King book, really comes to nothing after all. And the goofy Wizard-of-Oz-esque ending of this book just caused a "what the hell" reaction. It seemed like even the author had no idea where this story was going, or what to do with it.
At this point, Stephen King took a loooooong break from writing the Dark Tower series. So long that I filed the first four books away and started to forget about them. Many fans wondered if the series would ever be completed. Then something happened to force King's hand, so to speak. While out walking for exercise one day, the real-life Stephen King was hit by a car and nearly died. That made him realize how short life was, and how he still had this major project hanging. So he dug in, worked out the rest of the plot and banged out the last three books quickly. Far too quickly for most fan's tastes, as the ending feels rushed despite being a couple thousand pages long (another change in King's writing style over the years is that he can be incredibly long-winded at times. I know, so can I).
Book five, Wolves of the Calla, picks up with our heroes trekking through a forest, presumably not far from where they left off at the end of book four. They begin to mysteriously encounter the number 19 everywhere, a fact that is frequently referenced in the plot, and occasionally comes in handy (such as a password they need later turning out to be "19"), but one which is never really explained in any way. This is just one of the many loose threads that King adds in the last three books and then never really clears up.
Our group eventually encounters a scouting party from a nearby calla (Roland-speak for "farming/ranching village"). They have been warned by a robot that lives in the village that a raiding party called the "Wolves" is about to make one of their periodic (once a generation or so) attacks on the town. These Wolves swoop in, steal one child from each pair of twins (nearly every pregnancy in the calla results in twins, another fact that is never adequately explained) and use them for purposes unknown (we find out much later what's going on with the kidnapped children). The kids are eventually returned on an automated train (shades of the monorail from book three), but when they come back they're "roont" - nearly brain-dead and cursed with some growth problem that will cause them to quickly grow into giants and die young.
Needless to say, some of the townsfolk have had enough of this. They've put up with it for generations, for fear that any resistance would cause the entire town to be wiped out. But now that they've co-incidentally come across some real, live gunslingers at just the right time, they try to mount a defense of the children. This book, for the most part, tells of that defense. It's really only enough story to support a few hundred pages, although it does set up some things that happen later. To flesh out the rest of the book, King inserts a character from his book Salem's Lot, and adds a new evil device that basically comes to nothing. There are also more forays into our world, and strangest of all King decides to add himself as a character and, eventually, work his auto accident into the story. It's kind of a neat concept, but it's really, really overdone and having King interact with his own characters (again and again), and even "magically" provide items that the characters need, stretches the suspension of disbelief past the breaking point.
Song of Susannah - this book, the sixth in the series, is basically just a bridge between "Wolves" and the last book. The former and latter can stand on their own, but this one can't. In fact, there is so little going on in this book and I blew through it so quickly, that I can't even remember exactly what happens in this one. I think this is where the tale borrows heavily from the King Arthur myth, having Roland involuntarily spawn an evil child bent on his destruction. The main group of characters gets broken up, so this book spends a lot of time jumping from one character's plotline to another's. There is also a lot of time spent in our world rather than the Gunslinger's world. So this book also wasn't a big favorite of mine.
The story is finally wrapped up in volume seven, The Dark Tower, and it takes around 800 pages to do it. The book is split into several sections, and it could have (and probably should have) been split into multiple books. The main cast of characters gets back together, but not for long. It's made clear that the danger to the Tower is that an evil group is breaking the beams that hold it up. Roland and his crew battle to save the last beam. After that things start to go bad, and a lot of people don't like the way the book ended. Other than the easily-beaten super-villains, one deus ex machina that I'll get into later, and a sappy, tacked-on "happy ending" for certain characters, I actually liked how the series wrapped up. But we'll get to that in section two.
As a sort of postscript, in 2012 King decided that he hadn't had enough of writing about the world of the Gunslinger. Perhaps the re-casting of the story as a series of graphic novels inspired him, but whatever the reason he decided to write another Dark Tower book, even though the series had already been completed. The Wind Through The Keyhole fits in between books four and five of the existing series (King calls it book 4.5). Since many fans noted that there was a gap between where book four ended and where book five began, King starts this book with Roland and friends traveling away from the Emerald City and ends it with them preparing to head into the woods where the beginning of book five finds them. However, all that really happens is that they get caught in a "starkblast", which is a powerful storm that combines the worst elements of a blizzard and a hurricane. They find a safe building to hole up in, and while they're waiting it out Roland tells them another story from his youth.
Where Wizard and Glass could be considered a story within a story, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a story within a story within a story. Roland starts to tell his crew about how, as a young gunslinger, he had to track down a skin man - sort of a werewolf who can change into the shape many different animals and then go on a killing spree. Not long into that story though, the Roland in the story has to comfort a young boy and decides to tell a story that his mother told him when he was young. The book then launches into story #3, the title tale, which is a lengthy fairy tale that really has very little bearing on the overall Dark Tower story. New readers approaching the series for the first time might be confused as to whether "Keyhole" should be read after book four or after book seven - it really doesn't matter. I guess I'd recommend after book seven, because it does contain a couple mild spoilers that give away upcoming events in books five, six and seven (in a very vague way).
Should you invest the time and money into reading this series? Well, if you're a big Stephen King fan, then you definitely should. There are serious flaws, but overall it's still a very good series of books. Typical page-turning, involving, easy-to-read King material with good action, good dialog and lots of tie-ins to his other books. If you're a fan of epic fantasy stories in general but not specifically a Stephen King fan, then you might not like it as much. You'll probably enjoy the early books, but you might be disappointed by some of the inconstancies and plot holes, you might be slightly baffled by some of the cross-overs to King's other books, and you might not like the ending (although I did). For those who don't read a lot of King's work, but are looking to sink your teeth into an epic tale, you might want to consider hitting a library for the first couple books to see what you think, before sinking money into buying the whole thing.
Anyway, that completes section one. Hopefully it provided enough information
to anyone who's considering reading the series to decide whether or not you want to
OK, for those who ignored the warning, let's ruin things right away by beginning with the ending. A lot of people seem to be really upset about the ending. Both by the fact that King killed off two beloved characters (one of whom had been killed once before!) and by the resolution of Roland's quest for the Tower. For anyone who doesn't know, when he finally gets to the Tower and gets inside, he begins to climb it. On each floor of the tower he finds a room with some reminder of his life. It starts with a device used to pinch off his umbilical cord at birth and then chronologically continues to map out his entire life. Up to the point where we meet him at the beginning of The Gunslinger, and then on through all that we've already read (thankfully Roland ignores most of those items that we have already read about). When he finally gets to the top he opens the final door and realizes that his life is stuck in a loop and he's done all this again and again and again, like some sort of epic Groundhog's Day. The realization lasts long enough for him to despair and cry out for mercy, and then he's back in the desert at the beginning of book one, chasing the Man in Black again.
The actual point in time that he returns to makes no sense - just because that's where the reader started following his quest shouldn't matter. Shouldn't he go all the way back to his childhood when he first decided to quest for the Dark Tower? At least that way he would have some slim chance of changing his mind and breaking out of the cycle. But then King wouldn't have been able to use the first line of the first book as the last line of the last book, giving the whole series a nice symmetry.
Plus, this time things are slightly different. This time Roland has the horn with him. The one he's supposed to blow as he approaches the Tower, as he has dreamed of all through the incarnation that we've followed. The one that he somehow never realizes he doesn't actually have with him. Maybe the horn will make the difference - maybe his next lap through his life will be the last. Who knows what he'll find at the Tower the next time.
I liked that ending. A lot of people seemed to think it was a cheap and clichéd way out after King had painted himself into a corner. But looking back over the story, EVERYTHING points towards this ending. Roland himself keeps saying that ka (Roland-speak for "destiny") is a wheel, and what does a wheel do once it has rolled all the way to its end? It starts over. It would explain the sense of eternal struggle, and the feeling of ancientness to Roland that is commented on throughout the series. Even more importantly, it would explain why Roland always seems to know everything he needs to know. He rarely seems surprised by anything, and is almost always prepared for whatever he encounters. You would be too, if you had lived your life over and over again, even if that preparation was entirely on a subconscious level.
Some people were upset that Eddie and Jake were killed. One guy on Amazon even went so far as to write his own ending, starting just after the beam was saved, with Eddie and Jake surviving. But they had to go, because Roland had to come to the Tower on his own. His life is a continuous loop, but nothing says that any companions he meets along the way are also in that loop. I'd like to think that this iteration was the only time he ever met Jake, Eddie and Susannah, and that next time he'll meet other people. Or maybe no one. Maybe just Jake, since Roland didn't bring him into the story (the Man in Black did). Who knows.
The only method of writing out a character that I was disappointed by was Susannah's decision to literally cruise out of the story with the Dark Tower just over the horizon. Just because King needed her to be gone. Man, have some balls and kill her off. There's NO WAY anyone would go through all that she went through and then abandon the quest for no real reason just before reaching the final goal. Also, the happy ending where she returns to New York and meets alternate universe versions of Eddie and Jake, who have been waiting for her, is just lame, lame, lame. Especially after King informed us again and again that time only runs one way in our world and Roland's world, and if someone dies in those worlds, they die for good. Except that they don't. Well, I guess it shouldn't have come as any surprise, since Jake already died in Roland's world once, and ended up coming back. But then why waste so much ink explaining the "time only runs one way" concept, since it didn't mean anything?
And then there's the other big gripe that everyone seemed to have about the ending, and this one I have to agree with. The artist, Patrick. Roland and Susannah just happen to find him with the Tower within easy reach, and he just happens to have a magical power that can easily get rid of the Crimson King. I mean COME ON. What the f**k? THAT'S THE BEST YOU COULD DO, STEPHEN? After all the other villains were so easily disposed of (more on that below), it came as no real surprise that the biggest bad guy of them all basically made no dent on the story (heck, the lobsters that bit Roland's fingers off hurt him far worse than the Crimson King did), but jeeze. As one Amazon review put it, that was such an obvious deus ex machina that "you could practically see the wires". Roland is the main character, and he's a GUNSLINGER for god's sake. There should have been some way for him to dispose of the Crimson King with his guns. That's the one and only way it should have been done. Not having some magical artist who just entered the story destroy the ultimate bad guy by simply erasing him out of a picture.
As many have mentioned, just after the "happy ending" with Susannah meeting Eddie and Jake, King tells his readers to stop reading the book and accept that as an ending. Yeah, right. After investing the time to read the previous several thousand pages, I'm going to stop without finding out what happened to Roland when he finally got to the Tower. King says that a good story is about the journey, and not the destination. Excuse me Steve, but that's a bunch of BS. Any decent writer knows that a good story is supposed to have both a good journey AND a good ending. It's basic writing 101 - a story is supposed to have a beginning, a middle AND AN END. Three acts. Don't try to wimp out after 30+ years of working on the series just because you think a lot of readers aren't going to be happy with the ending. The really ironic thing is, I actually like the ending that occurs AFTER the warning (Roland discovering the nature of his existence) much better than the ending where King tells us to stop.
Anyway, enough about the ending. Here's a little laundry list of other things that I didn't like about the Dark Tower series:
So after all that complaining, it sounds like I hated the whole Dark Tower series, doesn't it? Well, I was a little disappointed in the last few books - as others have pointed out, it seems like King over-reacted to his near-death experience and rushed through the end of the epic just to see it finished. But overall the series is pretty good. Not the best thing I've ever read, but I'm glad I bought 'em all and followed the tale for the last twenty years. There are moments of brilliance throughout the series, even if it never did live up to the promise of the first book. Reading the whole thing from start to finish over the course of a couple months, there were so many criss-crossing plot threads that I had trouble keeping it all straight. I have no idea how Stephen King managed to keep track of it all over the course of the 30 years or so that it took him to write the whole thing. There are a lot of memorable characters in these books, as well as a lot of characters who seem to be introduced for no reason, only to disappear again a couple chapters later. The series, particularly the last three books, would have definitely benefited from some serious editing, to weed out the parts that don't really add anything to the overall story.
As I mentioned way up near the beginning of this lengthy, rambling page, I think the introduction of characters from "our" world hurt the series more than it helped. A lot of the mystery and atmosphere of Roland's world went right out the window when it got watered down by the constant jumps to our world. So, in a perfect world, here's what I'd like to see. I know Stephen King is probably sick to death of working on the Gunslinger books, and would never want to get back into it again, but if he did...
King should re-read the first half of the first book about a dozen times to really get back to the "feel" of the world he created in those pages. Then he should write book eight, picking up where he left off, with Roland re-starting his trek across the desert. But this time, DON'T pull in characters from other worlds. Have the entire story set in Roland's universe. Keep that unique tone of the first book, and don't let it devolve into a typical Stephen King page turner. Condense the story - don't go off on long, rambling side trips that don't really add anything to the primary quest. Keep the focus on Roland finding the beam, traveling along the beam, saving the beam and eventually reaching and climbing the Tower. And since he has the horn this time, maybe the ending can be different. I have no idea how else it could end, but that's why I'm not the author. Roland could pick up some companions along the way, but let them be people of his own world. He could run into Oy again. Some of the elements of the existing story could re-occur, but maybe in slightly different ways. New elements could be introduced. The whole thing could be done in one or two books. Maybe a second trilogy. If Stephen King isn't interested in writing it, maybe he could farm it out to some other good fantasy/sci-fi author who wants to do it. On second thought, that didn't work too well for Asimov's Foundation series, so forget I suggested it.
OK, I've had my say. Hope you enjoyed hearing one more opinion on the Dark Tower.