“The man in black fled across the dessert, and the gunslinger followed.”
When it comes to books, I’m always cautious of the fantasy genre. I don’t necessarily object to them in principle and I enjoy plenty of fantasy genre films and video games. It’s just that the fantasy genre for books almost always favours sprawling epics that take the author literally decades to finish, with no certainty that they can stick the landing. That’s a pretty serious investment of time and emotion without certainty of closure or satisfaction.
I know friends who sweat on George R R Martin’s slow work rate, an aging unhealthy fatty who has yet to complete his celebrated series A Song of Fire and Ice. My wife read The Clan of the Cave Bear books which took three decades to complete and the author only just finished the final installment last year, aged 75. I know a guy who read The Wheel of Time series which spanned 12 books and 17 years before the author Robert Jordan died…without finishing the story.
Long time readers of TFW will know that I am a Stephen King fan. I have read many of his most famous works of horror but have avoided his fantasy writing up until now. The Dark Tower spans eight books and took him three decades to write. He might still not be finished and apparently plans to rewrite the books. I have managed to stay spoiler free but have come to understand the gist of what happens: King constructs a well loved and entertaining fantasy world that is loved by his fanbase until his real life automobile accident causes him to announce his retirement from writing in 2002, a subsequent return shortly afterwards and then he does something monumentally controversial with The Dark Tower books which most people hate and cause them to question whether it was worth the investment.
With a touch of morbid curiousity, I decided to make the plunge with the first book in the series to see what all the fuss is about.
The Gunslinger introduces us to The Dark Tower’s protagonist Roland Deschain as he trails a stranger across an expansive wasteland that appears to be some form of Earth in an alternate universe. The prose and imagery in The Gunslinger frames the story as an otherworldly Western. Roland is a quietly spoken, stoic badass who has an aptitude for killing. King explains the influence of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character and the inspiration is there to see.
The story is told in very broad strokes and subsequently, there isn’t a great deal of nuance or detail to Roland’s character. He is single minded in his pursuit of The Man In Black. Even when he visits a small town where in a short span of time, Roland has both a sexual encounter and is forced to partake in a rather astonishing massacre of the entire town’s residents, it doesn’t actually bring out a whole lot of his personality.
Over the course of 200 pages, The Gunslinger picks up a sidekick, has a flashback to his youth, kills a bunch more stuff and has a strange duel with a rival. The story comes to a close with Roland granted three fetch quests which I presume will be the prize of his next few adventures.
I wasn’t taken with The Gunslinger as much as I had hoped. I think a Fantasy Western is a neat idea but there’s not a lot that happens in this story that feels particularly important or interesting. The Gunslinger just travels from location to location, forever hunting The Man In Black. If there were any sort of underlying themes then they sailed right over my head.
I’m going to read some other books before trying the next installment of The Dark Tower but I hope subsequent chapters in the series won’t be so bereft of detail.
Next up…The Hobbit.