This is the second entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my review of The Gunslinger. 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.”
One of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi and fantasy novels is the idea of characters showing up in the “real” world. I’ve always hated that sort of “fish out of water” story, with its wacky misunderstandings, vocabulary clashes, heavy-handed moral lessons that often result, and so forth. And maybe that’s part of why I had never really liked The Drawing of the Three as much most of the other Dark Tower fans – that instinctive dislike of that genre and its shortcomings.
And so it was sort of a relief to re-read Drawing of the Three and remember how little of that element there is to the novel. Yes, Roland has a few moments where he comments on the weirdness of this “modern” world; yes, there are a few silly misunderstandings (the neon tower sign is the one that bugs me more than the others); but for the most part, The Drawing of the Three is anchored in its characters – not just Roland, but those who he is drawing – the three deeply flawed characters drawn into the orbit of our deeply flawed hero.
As he did in The Gunslinger, King populates his fantasy series with characters who inhabit a wonderfully murky, grey moral area. Even with the first figure drawn from our world, King gives us a co-dependent heroin addict who’s smuggling drugs – not exactly a standard fantasy figure. And that pattern repeats with each of the next drawings, where King gives us broken, even horrific people, and tries to give us empathy and feeling for each of them. They – along with the coldly ruthless Roland, still willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive and to succeed in his quest – are our protagonists, and it’s another sign that King’s mythic fantasy quest isn’t going to be like many others.
But what makes The Drawing of the Three a strong second entry in the series is the reminder of how great King has become at storytelling since that young, inexperienced man wrote The Gunslinger. The Drawing of the Three feels like multiple books shoved into one, mixed wildly together – there are thrillers and dramas, crime novels and fantasy worlds, all shoehorned together into a strange, alien world that doesn’t always give us answers. (Indeed, one of the best things about the book is how little explanation is there for the drawing and the mechanics that surround it.) But no matter where the story is taking us, King makes it move, constantly ratcheting up tension, shifting the stakes of the conflicts, leaving us to question what it will mean to survive and succeed. Even better, he makes the characters’ evolutions intrinsic to the plot, making the drawing part of the shaping of their lives and their destinies.
None of which is to say that The Drawing of the Three is perfect. There is absolutely no denying the weirdness and discomfort of King’s racial choices when it comes to Detta Walker; while King makes the exaggerated caricature a conscious choice and has the characters themselves comment on the awfulness of it, it doesn’t make it less distasteful. (There’s a sense that, if King were to revise this one as he did The Gunslinger, he might make more of an effort to explain exactly what has turned Detta into such a hateful stereotype – there’s an explanation there, but it’s never made concrete in this novel.) And while it’s generally a good choice to lean into the inexplicable, alien nature of the doors, the way King uses them to resolve one character’s arc/dilemma ultimately feels a bit odd and shoehorned in – again, a rare case when a tiny bit more exposition might help things out a little bit.
For all of that, though, I think I better understand The Drawing of the Three‘s appeal for so many fans. I still don’t love it the way I love the rest of the series – it feels like a transitional book, and a stage-setting one at times – but there’s little denying that after the bleak, strange atmosphere of The Gunslinger, this second book feels like momentum is building in the series, and gives us characters we can more easily identify with than our strange, stark protagonist.
“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King / ****”