The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****


Introductory note: It’s been a little over a decade since the release of the last novels in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and every bit as long since I’ve read them. In fact, setting aside my reading of the revised edition of The Gunslinger, it’s been probably 15-20 years since I’ve read some of the Dark Tower books, despite my deep love for the series. So, with the release of the film later this year, I’ve decided to do a re-read of the entire series, as well as The Wind through the Keyhole after I read the original seven. It’s an undertaking I’m looking forward to, even though I’m worried that the series won’t live up to my love and affection for it.

One more key note: after each main review, I’ll do a section headed “All Things Serve the Beam,” in which I’ll discuss some spoilers for the series as a whole for those like me who’ve read it all or know how things turn out. I’ll mark it pretty clearly, but don’t read that section if you’re not wanting the series beyond this book spoiled for you.


the_gunslinger2The Gunslinger is a strange book, by any standards. That goes doubly if you’re reading the original version (which I recommend), but even if you’re reading King’s revised version that came out, The Gunslinger doesn’t quite feel…well, like a Stephen King book, yes, but really, it doesn’t feel like much else.

But for me, that’s much of what drew me into the world of The Dark Tower, and that goes doubly for King’s original version of the book, which is starker, less polished, and less familiar. It’s undeniably the work of a younger author, one who hadn’t honed his craft yet, and yet whose imagination and mind are truly like little else out there. Mixing together Sergio Leone, King Arthur tales, horror novels, and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Gunslinger puts us into a world that, as so many characters repeat, “has moved on.” This is not a vivid or rich world; it is a world that is dying, and dying rapidly.

And yet, the gunslinger – Roland Deschain – exists, and stays true to his quest. Despite the death of the world, despite the fact that he’s a forgotten relic of a bygone time, he clings to his quest – and there’s something primal and archetypal in that for me, a story of a knight on a pointless quest that has echoed into modern books I love like The Last Policeman or The Devil’s Detective, and no doubt, some of it started here.

Except, of course, that Roland isn’t a typical hero. It’s something I hadn’t considered entirely until this read, but King didn’t just borrow the style and grandeur of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns; he borrowed the amorality of its hero, giving us a hero who cares about his quest first and foremost, and finds all other attachments ultimately expendable. Roland is not the brightest character, not the warmest, not the most noble – but he is dedicated, and there is something fascinating about that, to no small degree. (King’s revised version seems to make Roland a little softer around the edges, and it’s my least favorite aspect of the revisions; Roland is a cold-blooded son of a bitch, and I think the original version of the novel stays true to that more clearly.)

The Gunslinger is a short book; it’s a foray into a strange world, an introduction more than a true entry in the series. And yet, there’s something so strange, so alien, so haunting about it that I still love it, all these years later. And while I understand King’s desire to revise the book (more on that in a moment), I love the stilted, uncomfortable nature of the original, and its rawness. It’s a magnificent first entry in a unique series, and a microcosm of what’s to come: not always perfect, but always unique and off-kilter, and the product of a mind incapable of doing the expected.


rehost2f20162f92f142f9bdfb44b-07d8-4df9-88d7-f78648933abeThe Revised Edition: After reading the original draft, my plan had been just to check out some of the edits, but I ended up reading the revised version the day after I finished the original. King’s choice to revise the novel is entirely a sensible one; his argument, that he always goes back and revises the openings of his novels to fit the work entire, is a logical one, and there’s little denying that the revised version of the book better fits the tone of the series as a whole. More than that, setting aside the numerous continuity fixes, the revised version feels more like the author we know, and the author who concluded the series – for better and for worse. There’s a better sense of where the story is going, and how it fits together, and who Roland is. More to the point, there’s a far better sense of who Jake Chambers is; his portrayal in the revised version is far richer and more interesting, turning the character into someone who feels out of place in Roland’s world and not just of a piece with the strangeness.

For all of that, though, and even though I’ll concede that the revised Gunslinger is no doubt a better sell for the series for new readers, I can’t deny my preference for the unpolished, rough edges of the original novel. The Dark Tower is as much a snapshot of where King was as an author and a person over the course of the many years that went into the pieces, and there’s something magical about seeing King’s talent in its original form. More than that, the strange, alien feeling of the original text is more haunting in many ways than the more fully-realized version that we get in the revised. Is the revised more true to the series…but it’s the original that made me a fan.

Amazon: Original Version | Revised Edition

All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Gunslinger, by Stephen King / *****”

Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman / *****

61ydlztifql-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is no logical reason that Anno Dracula should work, honestly. To call Anno Dracula “overly ambitious fan fiction” wouldn’t seem like a bad idea, based off of the description of the novel. After all, this is a book in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ascends to the British throne by marrying the Queen, resulting in the emergence of vampires out of the shadows. Oh, and it also means that Bram Stoker has been arrested for trying to write the book – which is better than what happened to Abraham van Helsing. But not content with just writing a sequel to Dracula, Newman turns Anno Dracula into a positive maelstrom of cultural, literary, and social references, with Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft, as well as more than a few other Holmesian supporting characters), the good doctors Moreau and Jekyll, Gilbert and Sullivan characters, opera icons – oh, and Jack the Ripper, of course. Indeed, it’s such a dense web of allusions both fictional and factual that this anniversary edition has a multi-page guide to some of the more obscure ones after the book ends.

And yet, not only does Anno Dracula succeed, it’s an absolute blast of a book, focusing on telling a great story rather than just playing an elaborate game of “spot the reference”. Using the Ripper’s crimes as a framework, Newman dives deeply into his alternate history, exploring how Victorian England might have shifted with the introduction of vampires, diving into the mythology of vampires (as well as the politics, given that they might not all be fans of the famed Count), exploring how class politics might change with the possibility of “turning”, and more. Rather than just telling a simple vampire story, in other words, Newman builds a whole alternate universe, and takes his time exploring it, following every small change and watching as it ripples outward, and investing us in disputes ranging from paid murder to broken engagements.

More than that, Newman invests us in his characters, letting the sides of his book be populated with the allusions and giving us his own original takes for our heroes (and some of the villains). From the outwardly mild-mannered Charles Beauregard (who covertly works for Conan Doyle’s infamous Diogenes Club) to Newman’s fascinating elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne (older, indeed, than Dracula, and somewhat disgusted by the violence and depravity of the Count), Newman doesn’t just create an interesting, rich world; he gives us characters that we enjoy and care about, and makes their stories every bit as important as the macro story going on behind them. Indeed, despite the title, Dracula himself is barely in the book as a character, instead mainly working as scene-setting – although his eventual appearance is well worth the wait.

Yes, Newman has some great ideas about vampires (my favorite is the “murgatroyds,” vampires who wear capes and act like, well, stereotypical vampires in an effort to appear fashionable); yes, his use of the Ripper makes for a great hook for the book, particularly with the identity of the Ripper in the novel and his motivations. But more than anything else, every single page of Anno Dracula is just dripping with imagination and surprises. From obscure allusions to surprising cultural shifts, from character evolutions to horrific violence, Anno Dracula is, first and foremost, a fantastic piece of storytelling. I got swept up into this ambitious, wonderful world, and I’m glad to know that Newman kept it going – I’m guessing that he’s like me, and just didn’t want to have to leave it.

Amazon

 

Coilhunter, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

51nzzo74xkl-_sy445_ql70_For a while, all I knew of Dean F. Wilson’s work was The Great Iron War series, a rich, involving steampunk war saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. Wilson’s prose was direct and effective – he had a clarity to his prose that befitted his action sequences, always keeping the battles clear, the environment understandable, and the various players clearly defined. What I didn’t realize – not until I read the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Agon series – was that Wilson’s prose was pared down and concise by design, not because that was just his style. Because Children of Agon read like Tolkien – it was epic fantasy, with dense, poetic prose and style to spare.

I mention this because, without that context, it could be easy to dismiss Coilhunter‘s prose as excessively colorful or too much. But within a couple of pages, I realized that that wasn’t a bug in Coilhunter; it was the design, creating a book that lived and breathed its Western atmosphere in every single word. With verbose killers, colorful turns of speech, and all sorts of fun writing, Coilhunter ends up being a lot of fun, and the prose is part of that, creating a rich, lived-in tapestry.

That Wilson is good as Westerns isn’t a surprise; what’s surprising to me is that Coilhunter is a Western in the first place, since it’s technically set in the same world as Wilson’s grim Great Iron War series. Wilson’s taken one of his more fascinating character – the titular Coilhunter, who makes his living as a bounty hunter in the less settled parts of that world – and written a book around him. The plot is pretty traditional fare, especially for the Western genre: the Coilhunter chases bounties, only to find that one he’s taken up could lead him to the killers of his family. But Wilson takes it on with style and panache, bringing his sci-fi steampunk Western world to vivid life, filling the pages with interesting characters and odd locales, and making it stand on its own.

More than that, Wilson has a great lead character in the Coilhunter, whose gadgets, tricks, and lethal abilities make him both a great hero and an exciting one to watch. Like so many Westerns, the question isn’t really if the Coilhunter is going to succeed; the question is, how will he pull it off. Even more to the point, though, Wilson makes his Western world all its own, making it stand out from the Great Iron War to the point where it feels less like a spinoff and more like its own series. With bounty hunter towns, old friends, and spectacular lawless zones, Wilson brings the world – and the characters – to life in a satisfying way, all while peppering things with his usual strong action sequences.

If there’s a knock on Coilhunter, it’s that the story feels more generic and formulaic than I’ve come to expect from Wilson; there’s little sense of surprise in what happens here or how things unfold. None of that keeps the book from being engaging or entertaining, mind you; it’s executed well enough that I tore through it quickly, eager to stay in this world for a while. But I’m more excited to see what happens in the next books in the series, now that Wilson has set the stage and cleared off some of the necessary backstory to get things moving. Here’s hoping it comes soon.

Amazon

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

Amazon

Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears / *** ½

371638A collection of 21 stories inspired by fairy tales, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears can be hard to describe. Yes, generally, the collection favors dark, “mature” takes on fairy tales (sexuality and violence are prevalent here). Yes, there’s a nice feminist undercurrent here, with passive women characters being given more agency. But really, the biggest weakness of Ruby Slippers is also its biggest strength: its diversity in approach. Some stories modernize the fairy tales, while others retell classic ones from a different perspective. Some are funny, some are horrific, some are dramatic. And while that leads to a more variety-filled and surprising experience, it also keeps the collection from feeling as cohesive or unified as it feels like it should, and leads to a bumpy reading experience as we jump from genre to genre and tone to tone.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean that there aren’t some fantastic stories here. John Brunner’s “The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” dives into (what I assume is) Chinese folklore to tell the story of a demanding, arrogant emperor and his quest for glory, while Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife” takes on the Japanese trickster fox. Gahan Wilson brings his usual dark humor to “Hansel and Grettel,” turning the iconic orphans into cocky social climbers who always feel the need to outdo everyone else. Roberta Lannes’s “Roach in Loafers” brings Puss in Boots (despite the anthology’s comment that this is “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” this is a fairly obvious “Puss in Boots” homage) to modern-day society with a great twist and a sense of humor. “Billy Fearless,” by Nancy Collins, creates a rural fairy tale with a wonderful voice, and Delia Sherman’s “The Printer’s Daughter” ends the collection on a surprisingly sweet and funny note, following a printer that’s made his daughter half out of sermons and half out of, shall we say, “adult” material.

That sounds like a lot of great material, and to be fair, the collection feels generally strong. There aren’t any pure misfires that I can think of, and a decent percentage of good ones. But the problem comes in how vague many of the stories go, feeling as though referring to fairy tales or just telling them in a new way should be appeal enough. That’s preferable to the cavalcade of “grimdark” stories, which mainly find ways to tell the fairy tales with added emphasis on brutality and violence. “The Princess and the Pea” becomes about a sadistic ruler and his mutilated servant who just wants to see women die. The updated “Match Girl” becomes a tour of rape and prostitution. “Beauty and the Beast” becomes about the pursuit of happiness and the desire to take it by force. And so on and so forth. It’s not that any of them are ever quite bad, per se, but it so often feels violent for its own sake, and without as much interesting to say as you would hope, other than “oh, I reimagined this fairy tale and now it’s for adults.”

The thing is, there are some great stories in Ruby Slippers, and a few that will no doubt stick with me. But it’s the rare case where some more focus and editorial control might help the collection – it would help it feel more focused, perhaps, but it could also cut down on the “fairy tales after dark” vibe that the collection falls into sometimes. It’s a decent collection, with some strong highlights, but I can’t say I’d recommend reading it all of a piece.

Amazon

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane / ****

fwblog051217lehaneAt first glance, Since We Fell feels…well, not very much like a Dennis Lehane book. Setting aside the book’s prologue, it’s the story of a young woman who grows up under the watchful eye of a domineering, cold single mother, who constantly refused to tell her about her father or who he was. And as this young woman grows up and becomes an investigative reporter, we see as her life shows stress cracks – panic attacks, anxiety-driven behaviors, and more – leading to her becoming a bit of a recluse. In other words, it’s a quiet, moody character study, one that feels more personal and more emotionally driven than Lehane’s usual noir crime stories.

But there is that prologue, isn’t there? Because, sure, that description may sound mellow and introspective. But given that we know this story will result in that young woman – Rachel Childs – shooting her husband and watching him fall lifelessly off of a boat…well, that changes things, doesn’t it?

It’s a savvy move for Lehane to open with that prologue, because without it, a lot of readers might give up on Since We Fell. Now, that would be a shame – this is a pretty great read, as I’ll get into shortly – but it’s understandable, because Since We Fell takes its time to become more than a character study of a quiet, anxiety-ridden woman. Indeed, it’s not until more than halfway through the book that Lehane starts to turn the book into something more, letting Rachel’s life begin to show signs of oddness as the people around her start seeming less than honest, and the reality she knows starts to unravel.

Exactly what kind of novel this turns into, I’ll let the reader discover; suffice to say, Lehane hasn’t left his thriller roots behind, even if what he’s crafted is more character-driven and psychologically-rooted than anything since Shutter Island. Like that novel, Since We Fell takes its time letting us settle into the mind of its protagonist, giving us a sense of Rachel’s moral and psychological views on the world, and investing us in her life. And if it ultimately feels like Lehane could prune the novel’s first half a bit, that not all of it is entirely necessary, that’s okay; without it, we’d miss out on some rich writing and character work that truly drew me into its world even as I wondered when the other shoe would drop. (What’s more, the way Lehane includes so much lets him plant seeds in plain view without us ever realizing what will be important later and what won’t.)

What Lehane has crafted here is an odd book – part love story, part thriller; part psychological character study, part mind game – but it’s anchored throughout by his typically great writing and a steady, involving pace that drew me in to the point where I didn’t even realize how much of the book had passed without much “happening”. It’s rich fare with a pulp heart, and while it’s a break from what Lehane usually does, that doesn’t make it less engaging and enjoyable – indeed, while it might not be Lehane’s “best” book, it’s one of his most fun and enjoyable ones, which makes it all the better for its summer release date.

Amazon