This is the fourth entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”
I remember being a bit let down with Wizard and Glass upon its release back in 1997. It’s not that the heart of the book – which revolves around Roland’s coming of age, both in terms of becoming a man and becoming a gunslinger – is bad by any means. Indeed, for many people, that story – an extended flashback that takes up probably 80-90% of the book – is one of the best sections of the entire Dark Tower saga. And as I re-read it, I came to agree with them to some degree, even while I also remembered what frustrated me about the original book.
Essentially, most of Wizard and Glass is the story of 14-year-old Roland Deschain, fresh off of his testing with Cort, and sent into his first mission in an effort to keep him and his friends safe from a world in the process of “moving on”. But rather than ending up with a quiet, easy job to do, Roland and his friends find themselves in a dangerous, volatile situation with threats on every side, from a town increasingly hostile towards the Affiliation to a failed gunslinger who’s the match of all of them, from an unclear conspiracy to a demented witch with a dangerous artifact. And once you add into the mix the fact that Roland falls in love with a young woman who’s to father the mayor’s child, an already tense situation gets even worse.
There’s a lot to love about this story, but one of the best things is getting to see Roland’s world as it was, not as it is; we see how society worked, get an ear for the patter and conversations and rhythms of the world, and a feel for the traditions and beliefs that helped shape Roland to become the man we know. More than that, we see Roland not as the hardened, ruthless figure we met in book one, but as a young man desperate to prove himself – and more capable of failing than we’ve ever known him to be. That it does all of that while telling a gripping, compelling story and bringing to life dozens of rich characters is just icing – and that doesn’t even get into the action sequences and pacing King brings out, every bit as good as he’s ever been. In other words, the story here could be a novel all on its own, and it would be a knockout – exciting, richly characterized, fleshed out, and surprisingly moving.
And almost as good is the opening section of the book, which provides a fantastic resolution to the last book’s cliffhanger and tosses us into a strange new world that may bear some familiarity for the true Constant Reader. It’s a surprising move, and one that throws all of the characters off kilter, putting everyone on unfamiliar territory and making the reader realize that, in the world of the Tower, the boundaries of reality aren’t as firm as we might think. It’s a great start to the book, and one that was worth the wait.
So, if all of that is so good, why was I disappointed then, and a little bit now? It’s because of the book’s finale, which indulges some of King’s favorite tropes (letting pop culture allusions slowly become literal and ominous) without much purpose. It’s a threatening ending, yes, and one that lets our heroes realize that their quest is being watched…but it’s also more than a bit over the top and silly, and ultimately feels like it’s unworthy of the book before it. Is it truly bad? Not entirely…but it definitely ends the book on a weaker point than any other part, and you never want to leave the reader on your weakest point – especially when you’re going to leave them hanging for almost another decade. Add to that the realization that the book we’d been waiting for for so long amounted to the end of a cliffhanger and a lot of backstory, and not much progress at all, and you can imagine some of my frustration.
Even with the ending and the lack of momentum, though, Wizard and Glass gives the Dark Tower books something it wasn’t even obvious they were missing: it gives them heart and soul, and more importantly, it humanizes Roland – and clarifies him – more than perhaps any other book before. And although the forward momentum of the quest doesn’t get us very far this time, it would be hard to imagine the series without this extended flashback, this glimpse into the world that was and the choices that helped define Roland as the man he would become.
“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow)
- It’s not the appearance of Flagg at the book’s end that I mind, nor the ineffective nature of his threat. Indeed, knowing how pathetic Flagg’s death will be, the fact that he’s a paper tiger here seems apropos. What I mind is the big, ludicrous Wizard of Oz thing going on in the finale, without clear purpose or impact. If there was more to it than “well, this is weird and unexpected,” that would be one thing. (Admittedly, it is another blurring of pop culture into reality.) But it largely feels like King just needed a weird ending for the book, and doesn’t help much.
- R.I.P. Blaine the Mono and Tick-Tock. The former was a great villain; the latter…well, he survived longer than expected.
- One of the things I’ve been more attuned to on this read-through is how much Roland is willing to sacrifice for the Tower. But even with that in mind, I had forgotten that not only is he ready to leave Susan, he’s also ready to leave his unborn child and shows no regret about it. You could charitably chalk this up to his immaturity, but I feel it’s more revealing about how brutal and relentless he can be. And knowing how bad Susan’s fate is only makes his coldness worse.
- In so many ways, the flashback story of Wizard and Glass feels like it will echo again and again in Wolves of the Calla – another village, another outnumbered showdown, another time where Roland’s friends round out his ka-tet and where subterfuge and gunplay mix. And that doesn’t even get into the Cuthbert/Eddie parallels.
- I had forgotten that in the afterword, King mentions that he increasingly feels that the Dark Tower unifies all of his books – and that even Father Callahan could end up here. I guess at the time, I thought he was being rhetorical.
- Seeing Oy impaled on a tree branch during the Wizard’s Rainbow vision just reminds me how much that particular death really broke my heart. Man, that last book is going to be a rough read.
- A quick series note: even though The Wind Through the Keyhole was chronologically the next book, I’m holding off on it until the end; in other words, I’m sticking with publication dates, not timeline.
- In case anyone cares, my current ranking of the books:
- The Waste Lands
- The Gunslinger
- Wizard and Glass
- The Drawing of the Three