Genre: Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror(ish)
Setting: Alternate Universe, no specified time or place, landscapes similar to the American West
The first time I attempted to read the first title in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series I was probably 11 or 12 years old, which was way too young to tackle this novel by all accounts. Reading The Gunslinger again at 24 gave me a greater appreciation for it, but parts of the book remain obscure. When reading this review, keep in mind the Dark Tower ended up being an 8 book series and as of writing this I only have knowledge of the elements of the series that are contained in the first book.
The Gunslinger follows the path of Roland Deschain–a man who is the last of his order–across desert and through mountain, on his journey to find and capture the Man in Black and in so doing gain more information that will help him in his overarching search for the Dark Tower. The novel sustains a dreamy and mystical quality throughout mixed with a gritty realism that it gains from the tropes it pulls from the American Western.
I’m going to deviate momentarily from my typical review routine of breaking the novel down into “the Good” and “the Bad,” simply because this book was such a mixed bag for me it is difficult to separate its positive and negative elements so categorically. The world-building is pretty murky to start off with. First of all, Roland’s world at times seems to be our world after some sort of apocalyptic event, or perhaps just after an inordinately long passage of time, but peppered with some obvious fantasy features that don’t exist in our reality. This opinion is formed by in-world references to things that exist in our universe, such as the song “Hey Jude” and the occasional appearance of technologies such as railcars that have since become obsolete in The Gunslinger but are familiar to readers if not always to Roland.This gets muddied even further, however, when Roland hypnotizes the young boy, Jake, who accompanies him throughout part of his journey. In Jake’s memories the reader is given a glimpse of what is apparently real world Manhattan, but Roland doesn’t recognize this world. Again, I will reserve final judgement over this confusing concept of setting because it’s entirely possible the issue will be cleared up in one of the subsequent novels in the series. It is also worth mentioning here that all of Stephen King’s novels apparently occur in one overarching universe that he has created, but given the depth of his oeuvre I don’t care to resolve that issue in my understanding completely. At least not yet.
Another issue for me is that there are some very abstract moments in the novel that are convoluted and confusing rather than artful. They don’t distinguish themselves with a purpose, so much as they drag in their obscurity. I won’t speak too much more on this because I don’t wish to offend people who are in love with the series, and it’s worth noting some readers consider the Dark Tower series one of the pinnacles of fantasy literature.
There are a couple things I was grateful for in reading The Gunslinger. First of all, there wasn’t too much weird sex stuff. This might seem like a ridiculous statement to anyone who isn’t accustomed to reading Stephen King, but if you have read even one of his novels, chances are….you get me. I am never of a fan of the sexual situations that King dreams up because they are always awkward, often disturbing, and sometimes don’t do anything to serve the story in any way. Bizarre sexual encounters aren’t completely nonexistent in The Gunslinger, but thankfully, they were kept to a minimum.
The second thing I appreciated was the conversation between Roland and the Man in Black. I enjoyed the Man in Black’s way of speaking. In a book that was occasionally mired in abstraction, the Man in Black had a lovely way of waxing philosophical with surprising clarity and simplicity. King introduces some deeply metaphysical themes in this conversation between his hero and antagonist and despite the weighty concepts, it is probably one of the most easily understood parts of the entire novel, and it serves to put Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower into better perspective. For me this conversation was redemption for the rest of the novel and I will definitely end up reading the second title in the Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three. If nothing else The Gunslinger peaked my curiosity, and while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea, I can definitely see this being a worthwhile read for lovers of science fiction and fantasy.