The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
The Gunslinger is the first novel in the long running Dark Tower series, and by far the shortest. Clocking in at just three hundred pages, this novel introduces us to the gunslinger Roland Deschain and the world he inhabits. This simplistic story unfolds over five distinct acts, and features Roland battling the increasingly malevolent denizens of this strange new world as he attempts to track down the mysterious man in black. Although this is an incredibly simple story with a limited cast of characters, it is clearly designed as something more of an introduction or teaser into the Dark Tower universe. Heavy on mysteries and light on answers, The Gunslinger most certainly isn't for everyone, but it will be enjoyable if you are a fan of well crafted worlds or King's usual quirkiness, which is present throughout this book.
Roland's efforts to catch the man in black frame the entire novel and in this regard it is a somewhat simplistic book. There isn't much subtlety to it, just an endless chase scene with a large amount of barriers thrown in the way for good measure. He meets several bizarre inhabitants and sees many strange things along the way, all the while reflecting on his past life and giving us insight into his history. Despite the fact that the plot has quite a deal of urgency and there is so little intrigue, it is actually quite a slow read, even at 300 pages. We spend lots of time marinating in the relationship between Roland and Jake, a boy who joins Roland's journey at roughly the halfway point, and there is also quite a bit of time spent building up this strange new world that Roland inhabits. The slower scenes are balanced out quite nicely by several fast paced action scenes that showcase Roland's incredible skill with gunplay and help demonstrate his uncanny resolve in the face of adversity. Even though is motivation is at times unclear, there is no denying that he wants to make it to the Dark Tower quite badly. The strong amount of variety and sense of pacing helps balance out any flaws with the content, and even with so many things left unanswered, the Gunslinger is a fairly enjoyable read with a good amount of memorable happenings.
We are limited to pretty much three characters of any note in this book: Roland, his young companion Jake, and the mysterious man in black. Characterization isn't a major element of this book, and in fact the latter two are hardly developed at all, while Roland seems to lack motivation. We are told that he wants to get to the top of the Dark Tower, but not really informed on why this is important to him. He seems to have as little idea about his quest as we do, other than that he wants to ask some unrevealed (to us) thing when he gets there, so it is very difficult to try to connect with this character. There are some strong flashback sequences though, some of which mention names and events that will surely be discussed in the future books, while others help fill us in on Roland's early life and training. Roland's character isn't necessarily bad in this book, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about him, and he seems to be a little too generic, like a less intimidating version of Clint Eastwood's Blondie character from the Dollars Trilogy.
The book's most redeeming feature is its world building. Stephen King has always been great at creating a living world that has plenty of intriguing facets to it, but unlike many of his books that are more grounded in reality, he does it here with the less is more approach. Instead of giving us a robust supporting cast and carefully explained city or town to fill in the background, here the setting thrives on being essentially full of mystery. We are never told how exactly Roland's world differs from ours, what the rules are, or even what most of the new terminology means. What we are told tends to work fairly well, and what is hinted at works even better. By doing this he creates a craving for answers that extends beyond the occassionally mediocre story, hooking the reader in with a very mysterious world and conjuring up plenty of unique ideas. This book features some of his best world building and the fact that he did it in essentially a completely different way than he did with many of his other great settings (like Derry from It) makes it all the more impressive.
This book is a very tough grade. On one hand, this is essentially an introduction to the Dark Tower universe, so recommending it on its own merits is quite tough. It wraps up precious little and keeps so many things (including most of the details of our main character, Roland,) completely hidden from the reader. It is exceptionally thin on sub plots and side characters and is essentially a very simple doggedly determined chase sequence that manages to take up three hundred pages. On the other hand, the mysterious element behind basically everything is quite compelling and the world being built here benefits quite a bit from the fact that the author doesn't play all his cards at once. Additionally, there are several well crafted action scenes, complete with a supremely creepy feel to most of the book (though it isn't a horror book in the slightest) and the little tidbits we do get concerning our main character and his purpose are quite tantalizing and have managed to keep me engaged in the book. There is a lot of potential for enjoyment of the series, so Gunslinger merits consideration despite its various flaws.