This is the fifth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). 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.”
And finally, after decades of writing and an near-fatal car accident, Stephen King brought us into the home stretch. I still remember the excitement when Wolves of the Calla was released – not just the excitement of a new Dark Tower book (though that was no small part of it), but the realization that the end was in sight – that within the next year, we would have the final novel in the series in our hands, and that King was focused on the Tower in a way he had never really been before. More than that, all of the various threads and hints that King had been tossing out – from Insomnia to Black House, from Everything’s Eventual to Hearts in Atlantis, King had been building to this in almost every book he’d written as of late, and I was eager and ready to see what came next.
What came next was an absolute crackerjack adventure story, one with a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, and yet one that was undeniably a King tale, and even more specific, a Tower tale. More than that, it’s the most focused Tower novel since The Gunslinger – the first since the original to have a single, clear, focused throughline. Yes, there are diversions and sidetracks, and there’s setup for the two books to come, but by and large, Wolves of the Calla is simple: a village needs help, and Roland and his ka-tet will aid them. The details are more complicated, of course, with mysterious hooded raiders, children who are kidnapped and returned as shells of themselves, and a mysterious cave that might be the key to saving a singularly important rose, but really, this is a tale as old as Kurosawa…or King Arthur.
But still, this is a King tale, and he’s at the top of his form here, immersing us into this community and its population, investing us in their fears and worries, and ratcheting up the tension and the pacing slowly but inexorably until you’re rocketing through pages to get to the fight that we’ve been simultaneously dreading and awaiting for hundreds of pages. Does King manage to do this while still giving us rich character depth and development, moving the quest ever forward to the Tower, and creating a rich world? Of course he does.
And, as usual, it’s the details that stick out so much – the rich patois of the local villagers, the odd behavior of Andy the “useful” robot, the strange unease around the number nineteen…all of it works, giving the book detail and depth that makes it even richer than it would have been otherwise. Even the sidebars are rich here, with one characters’ long backstory being every bit the equal of the rest of the book, as he narrates a story of supernatural vengeance, shadowy roads, and low men in yellow coats. (Indeed, some parts of that story may be the best parts of the book.)
It wouldn’t be right to call Wolves of the Calla the calm before the storm – there’s plenty of storm here – but there’s a sense that, by book’s end, we are plunging into the endgame more quickly than we realized. But in Wolves, King gives us a sense of what this quartet – quintet, if you count their furry friend Oy – was capable of. Just as Wizard and Glass let us see Roland in his youth but at full capacity, Wolves gives us a glimpse of what a world with gunslingers could be – a world of violence, yes, but one of justice and honor, even in the face of horror. It’s a welcome entry in the series, and one of my favorites to date.
All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow)
- Lots to talk about this time (this section turned out almost half again as long as the main review), but for the moment, I want to back up to Wizard and Glass and something I forgot to mention in my recap there, and yet fits just as nicely here. The number of tankers that Susan reports to Roland? Nineteen, of course. And while there was no way the King of 1997 could have known how he would end up incorporating that number in the series, much less the significance to his own life, it gave me an odd chill to notice it at the time, if I’m being honest.
- A couple of book-specific thoughts before I get into the series stuff: I remember reading Wolves the first time, and was thrilled that my random thought about how the Wolves sounded like Doctor Doom ended up paying off. I didn’t see the Harry Potter connection coming at all, though…but in hindsight, both are hinted in fonts, aren’t they? Between the comic book font of the title and the Harry Potter font for the part titles, some graphic designer got sneaky with the clues. And I approve.
- According to the “Final Argument” that opens the book, the driver of the car that hit Jake was Enrico Balazar. That’s…an interesting retcon. Not really good or bad – just an odd choice, although of a piece with the “everything is connected, no coincidences” motif of the series.
- Also, not only is Callahan’s story one of the best parts of the book, but it also does a fantastic job of recapping some of the pieces of extra-textual lore from Black House and Hearts in Atlantis very nicely, to the point where even readers who skipped them now know anything they needed to know.
- And now, series thoughts: how about the fact that Eddie, who’s never been on a horse, immediately takes to it without a single issue, and wonders if he’s somehow been reincarnated to this role. That may or may not be, but it certainly makes me wonder if Eddie hasn’t picked up these skills on all of his previous trips to the Tower, and that’s his “reincarnation”.
- I’ll have much more to say about the metafictional aspects of the book next time, but for now, the first mention of Stephen King here – on the bookstore board when Jake’s gone todash – is a legitimately strange moment, as King shatters the fourth wall and leaves us wondering what’s to come, only to hit us with a doozy at the end of the novel. But how appropriate that the book ends up elevating a humble book seller to a critical role, given how much this is a series that celebrates fiction and stories. (On this note, it seems significant how much of this novel revolves around the stories and tales of others, from Callahan to Gran-Pere to Roland’s dreams of Jericho Hill.)
- On the subject of Jericho Hill: this is the first time the series tells the story of that doomed battle, but more importantly, it’s also the first mention of the Horn of Eld, which symbolizes so much about Roland. It’s noted that Roland ignored the Horn out of bloodlust and rage; the fact that Roland will have it on the next go-around raises questions about how Roland has changed, that he would make sure to have it. The symbolism is important, but needs some unpacking.
- More Roland brutality throughout the book, from his coldness about the fate of Susannah to Callahan (in which he says he would continue to the Tower) to his viciousness toward Ben Slightman to his pragmatic and cold approach to battle and casualties. Roland is a warrior with a military mind, and though we know him by this point, there’s still the constant awe at how cold he can be. And yet, it’s clear that Roland is open to change, which lends credence to this being late in Roland’s cycle through the Tower; he’s clearly come to love these people, even though he once comes out and says how much easier it would be without them all. Roland is thawing, and that’s most evident in his love for Jake…which is going to make book 7 brutal.
- That being said, Roland telling Callahan that “your Man Jesus seems to me a bit of a son of a bitch when it comes to women”? Priceless.
- I love the way “nineteen” gradually worms its way into the book, slowly and inexplicably; I’m less enamored of the abrupt, nonsensical introduction of “ninety-nine” when Roland whispers to Jake, who then introduces himself as belonged to the Ka-Tet of Ninety-Nine. It feels forced and odd, for something that has so much importance to the series. Much the same could be said for Father Callahan, whose importance to the story always felt a little bit forced. He never felt like a true member of the ka-tet to me – an important character, sure, but he’s no Oy.
- The slow unfolding of the New York storyline is really interesting to me this time, with King slowly setting up the tension between Sombra and Tower. I wonder how much of that story King had planned when Calvin Tower and his bookstore came into the story back in The Waste Lands? Of course, that gets into the question of what these books would have been without the accident at all…and down that road leads madness (but interesting debate).
- Next up comes Song of Susannah, which I’m honestly realizing how little I remember of, apart from the King section and the final pages. I know it’s generally regarded as the worst book of the series, but I remember enjoying it; time to see if that was just excitement for a new Tower book, or if it’s better than its reputation.