The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
The Gunslinger is Book 1 in Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series. King was heavily influenced by Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings but, though he had the early inklings of this story when he was very young, he waited decades to write it because he wanted to make sure it was his own story, and no one else’s. Although this is just book one of seven, I can already say with some confidence that he has succeeded; this is certainly going to be an epic fantasy series, but one which is uniquely Stephen King (which means, utterly different from fantasy series’ most of us would think of, when we think of the genre as a whole). In this book, we meet Roland Deschain, the protagonist and last Gunslinger – a highly trained part-assassin, part-demigod. Roland is tracking a powerful and dangerous adversary, the “man in black” (who readers of King will recognize as the face of evil in certain other books). He is also searching for the Dark Tower, the image of which comes to him in his dreams and hallucinations – he knows it is a source of ancient power, but he does not know what he will find there, who built it, who lives there, or what will happen to him when he finds it.
At its core, The Gunslinger is a quest novel with fantasy elements, inspired by Lord of the Rings, sure, but also by Le Morte D’Arthur and the original quest tales. Roland must overcome obstacles and slay dragons (metaphorically) in his chase to reach the tower. The reader will also see that the landscape, resembling earth but a different one, perhaps out of time or of another dimension, plays a large part in the fantasy and, likely, in the magical abilities that some of these characters have.
Roland’s character is interesting and though an unlikely hero, King’s ability at constructing background stories and introducing flashbacks at critical points in the narrative definitely helps the reader empathize with him. Although I was highly troubled by one of Roland’s decisions near the end of the book (we are expecting it – but still hoping that there might be another way), the earlier exploration into Roland’s background and the later ten-year hallucination he experiences in the desert helps us understand why he did what he did.
The language, prose, and structure are all classic King. He is crude, raw, and fluid. The pages turn because the story is fast-paced and formulaic – short chapters introducing major and minor characters in various episodes which advance the plot. Of course, it is all device, but it works and King is a master of it.
This first book in the series explores, as later books likely will, the nature of good and evil and how people are largely capable of both the good and the bad and although there may be some pure good and some pure evil, most are found along a spectrum of sorts. It also comments on modernity, religious fanaticism, alcoholism, power, and sacrifice. It is an enjoyable, interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable read – a good introduction to what will likely be a great series. I am excited to read the rest.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Epic Fantasy, Quest Narratives, Good/Evil, Holy Grail.
“The mystery of the universe is not time but size.”
“Few if any seemed to have grasped the Principle of Reality; new knowledge leads always to yet more awesome mysteries. Greater physiological knowledge of the brain makes the existence of the soul less possible yet more probable by the nature of the search.”
“Do any men grow up, or do they only come of age?”
“They had discovered one could grow as hungry for light as for food.”
“Was there ever a trap to match the trap of love?”
The Gunslinger is Book 4 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.