Years ago, I picked up The Gunslinger and was enthralled. I sped through the first three books of Stephen King's Dark Tower series only stopping because the fourth had yet to be published. It was a year after that when Wizard and Glass came out and I found that I no longer had the burning desire to read any more. The flashback structure put me off, and I went no further than Rhea of the Coos.
Then, back in November, I decided to go back to it again for two reasons. One, all seven books were now in print, so there would be no waiting after I finished one to get to the next. And two, all seven were available in audio form, which I thought would be a great way to enjoy the entire series. So now, after approximately 140 hours of audio CD, I've come to the end. Some thoughts (And there are necessary spoilers here, so Dark Tower virgins be warned):
For years after I initially read the first three books, I'd occasionally have an impulse to tap my throat three times with two fingers and say "Thankee-sai". Aside from this being a real geeky thing to do, the more extraordinary part of this is I had absolutely no memory of where I picked this up. It's an illustration of what I most admire from the books: the unique expressions of language used to create this world. Not only unique but also natural. The speech patterns are therefore quite credible as everyday language. "Do you ken it?", "Do you say so? Then let it be so." and "Long days and pleasant nights" are just some of the turns of phrase that I'll carry with me long after I have finished these books.
My first impression those years ago when I stopped at the fourth book has carried over to now: Wizard and Glass is the weakest link. Primarily, this is due to the flashback that makes up the bulk of the novel. It's too drawn out for it's own damn good. You could argue this was on purpose as Roland and his friends bided their time in Mejis, but I think it goes beyond that. I think King fell too much in love with Susan and Cordelia and Eldred and Thorin and so on so that it just got too unwieldy for its own good. I think King forgot his big piece of advice from his On Writing text: Kill you darlings, Kill your darlings, Kill your darlings.
And one other note on Wizard and Glass: It also has the least satisfying ending. The Wizard of Oz thing was a little too much for me, more so than any of the other literary and cultural allusions used throughout. And it was also disappointing that a vicious, interesting villain (i.e. The Tick Tock Man) was brought back into the picture at such great effort only to be shot dead within the first few pages of seeing him again. Gee, thanks for the cameo, Andrew Quick.
As if to make up for all this, the first section of The Wolves of Calla was the most satisfying beginning of the series. This whole portion does a wonderful job of introducing Tian Jaffords, Andy the Robot and the story as a whole. The exposition never feels forced, and I am left eager to know the further details of this little community full of farmers and ranchers eeking out a living and the horrible fate of their children. Also, of all the fantastical and strange names that King comes up with for this world, my favorite was given to a barren tract of land mentioned in this intro: "Son-of-a-bitch"
I remain undecided on the whole Meta turn the books took in The Wolves of Calla. It did make me glad that I had read (twice, in fact) the aforementioned On Writing, as his views of the writing process and details of his accident were great supplementary material to the later books. It seems clear that the Dark Tower series is more personal to him than any of his other works, so it must have seemed natural for him to insert himself into the proceedings. As a result, we get a portrait of the man himself to go along with Roland's inner demons.
In terms of the format I used to experience this epic, the voice work was top notch. Aside from a recording of King himself doing Drawing of the Three (more on this in a moment) Frank Muller did the first four books. Stephen King actually inserts a note about Muller in the fifth book recording and expresses his sadness at his death and how he would not be able to complete the series. George Guidall picks up where Muller left off for the last three books. Both did very well with the characters and had sufficient range to paint distinct portraits of all the myriad characters of New York, Midworld and everywhere else.
When I was ready to read the second book, the only audio copy available at the library was the King read version, recorded back in 1991. These days, King is well practiced in reading for audiobooks (for the third time, let me invoke his On Writing, whose audio version is read by King and is excellent), but this was apparently not the case back in 1991. It could also just be chalked up to poor production values, but the bottom line is that it's a rough listen with a lot of audible breathing and such. Still, these are King's characters and who better to bring across their manners of speech. The only drawback is King's Eddie, which sounds so much like vintage 1970 George Carlin recordings as to be distracting.
And then there's the ending to the series as a whole. As those of you who have read it know, there are actually two endings. The first shows the fate of Susannah after she enters the door to Central Park. This ending was fine with me, and was a nice way to wrap up the story of the other Ka-tet members. The second ending, that for Roland, is preceded by a commentary from King on the nature of journeys and the persistence of fandom. He further states that his revealing of Roland's fate might be upsetting to his readers. To this I say, if he really didn't want us to see what happened when Roland entered the tower, he need not print it. He yields to the psychic arm-twisting of his fans and concludes the story of Roland for us.
To Mr. King I have to say, he need not have worried about our reactions. Anyone who has the patience and persistence (Not unlike Roland's dogged determination. What does that say about us?) to get through almost 4,000 pages of text must have a feeling for the themes and characters that have been laid out. With that in mind, Roland's ending inside the Tower was just as fulfilling as Susannah's, if not more so. After all, Ka is like a wheel.
(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)