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Review 120: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Well, here we are. After a long road – longer for some of us than for others – we have finally reached the end of The Dark Tower series. For some of us, it’s been twenty years in coming, so if you’ve only started reading this series recently, count yourself lucky. You don’t know how we waited for this book, the book wherein Roland would finally attain his goal, and we would see if all the sacrifices he made were worth it.

Were they? Kind of.

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I’ll get into more detail later, after I dutifully put up the “Here Be Spoilers” sign, but this is the book where everything gets resolved, and our heroes are given their reward for the hard work they have done. The bad guy is beaten, the world is saved, and all is well. Although “well” is a very relative term in this sense, and while the bad guy is beaten, it’s not very satisfying, and the reward that many of our heroes get isn’t necessarily the reward they would have chosen.

If I sound like I’m dancing around the story, that’s because I am. I have an aversion to spoiling books in these reviews, mainly because I know how satisfying it is to get into a good book and discover things. To see old characters appear from the past, and to witness the heroism of the characters we have come to love. To look at the journey they take and see their relentless pursuit rewarded. At the same time, I don’t want your experience poisoned by knowing the drawbacks to a book – the soft spots in the plot, the characterization problems, the disappointments and the heartbreaks. [1]

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This book contains all of these, and if I avoid talking about them, then this review will be awfully short. So, Constant Reader, I tell you this: you can stop here. You can click away to another page, perhaps to Amazon to buy the book and read it yourself (I recommend the Kindle edition if you can – I have the hardcover and it is quite the doorstop), perhaps to put off the reading of the book for a while longer. You don’t have to learn things that will taint the journey of discovery that is reading , and you can live on with a vision in your head of how The Dark Towerseries should end, instead of how it actually does.

Would you stay, then? Very well. After this point, there is no turning back. What is learned, as they say, cannot be unlearned.

This is not the book I wanted. It is unbalanced, hard to get through, and disappointing in many ways. There are also some beautiful moments, and some interesting ideas which, upon post-reading reflection, make the whole story more meaningful. But my overall feeling was one of great disappointment. Let’s start from afar, shall we?

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The structure of this book is rather lopsided. The most climactic event in the book, the battle of Algul Siento, is quite exciting and fun in that it is what we readers expect from a climax – gunfire and death and the saving of worlds. By freeing the Breakers from their work on the Beams, Roland and his ka-tetdo indeed save the macroverse from complete dissolution. They have literally saved the world and, as we learn later, have completely thwarted the evil designs of the Crimson King. The story could end there, the characters could go on their separate ways, and all would be well.

The problem is that this occurs in the first half of the book. It’s followed soon after by a minor climax – Roland and Jake saving Stephen King from certain death by drunk driver – but even that is done a little more than halfway through the book. Stephen King is safe, the New York Rose is safe, and we find out later that not only are the last two Beams intact, they are regenerating and will probably regenerate the other four. Reality has been saved.

But the story goes on, because saving reality was never Roland’s goal. It was only, in the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons, a side quest. There’s a larger quest to be resolved.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there were an even bigger climax waiting for us at the end, but there isn’t, and this is where I feel kind of betrayed. When Roland gets to the Dark Tower, we know he will have to face the Crimson King, who has been held up as the incarnation of death, evil and chaos. He has been the main antagonist throughout this whole series. His reach is long, his power vast, and his hate for Roland of Gilead is as focused as a laser and as hot as the sun. He is as close to the Devil as we can get.

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So, when Roland finally makes it to Can’-Ka no Rey, the great field of roses within which the Dark Tower stands, who do we see? A “satanic Santa Claus” who throws explosives from the only balcony of the Tower he’s been able to reach. He’s generically ugly, screams like a madman, and talks in villain cliches – “GUNSLINGER! NOW YOU DIE!” or “YOU DON’T DARE MOCK ME! YOU DON’T DARE! EEEEEEEE!” or “EEEEEEEE! EEEEEE! STOP! IT BURNS!” On top of all that, the Crimson King is finally defeated not by Roland’s guns or some great battle on the physical, intellectual or spiritual plains, but by a guy with a sketchpad. He is simply erased from afar. And thus ends the reign of what was supposed to be the greatest horror of all worlds.

What’s more, their meeting at the Tower was not acually the defeat of the Crimson King – he conceded defeat way back during Wolves of the Calla. We find out that, with the defeat of the Wolves, the King foresaw the end of the Breakers and thus his plan to unmake creation. So, he broke his Wizard’s Glasses, killed nearly everyone in his castle. killed himself by – for reasons I still don’t understand – swallowing a sharpened spoon, and then, undead (which I also don’t understand), rode off for the Tower.

Even then, though, he couldn’t win. In order to enter the Tower he needed either Roland’s guns or Mordred’s birthmark, neither of which he had. So he climbed up into one of the Tower balconies with all the weapons he could carry and just waited. If Roland hadn’t come to the Tower, he would have waited there forever and never harmed anyone again. By bringing his guns, Roland raises the possibility that the Crimson King could still triumph. So, by continuing his quest, Roland endangers all existence.

Art by Michael Whelan

As much as I hate to call out authors on what they “should have” done, I feel like I have to here. A hero is only as good as his villain, and the Crimson King, in the end, turns out to be a pretty crappy one. I wish King had made their meeting worthy of the image he had built up. The same goes for one of our favorite characters, Randall Flagg (or whatever name he chooses to use). He has floated through this series and others like a cancer, bringing nothing but death and pain with him. He’s a charismatic madman who revels in chaos and is probably one of the most enjoyable characters King has created. So how does he die? He gets killed by Mordred, the bastard son of Roland and the Crimson King, of Susannah and Mia. He gets killed and eaten without much of a fight. I think a lot of fans would agree that Flagg deserved better.

And while we’re on the topic – Mordred.

One of my measurements of good characterization is a question: If this character did not exist, could the story have ended the way it did? With Jake and Father Callahan, Susannah and Eddie, with Oy and Flagg and Cuthbert and Susan and Cort, the answer is, of course, No. Each of those characters contributed something vital to the story, something that no other character could have done. To reach the same end without one of those characters would have meant a vastly different story.

Art by Michael Whelan

The same cannot be said of Mordred. Of the people he kills, only two matter to us: Flagg and Oy. Flagg should have been the penultimate End Boss, the final challenge for Roland before reaching the Tower and the Crimson King. And there are many ways to kill a Billy-Bumbler – I think King could have thought of one that gave Oy the same honorable and heartbreaking death that he got trying to save Roland from Mordred. Other than that, Mordred had no impact on the story at all. He just followed Roland, Susannah and Oy, shivering and whining and feeling sorry for himself. He kept telling us that he was meant for great things, but never showed even the slightest hint of that potential. He follows Roland like Gollum follows Frodo, but at least Gollum turned out to be important.

The one thing we do get from Mordred is a frustrating bit of knowledge – that the Crimson King and Roland are both descended from the mythical king Arthur Eld. In that way, their battle is between cousins, and Mordred represents a unification of two bloodlines – demon and human. If their conflict had been framed in that context, it could have been so much more interesting when we finally got to the end.

Speaking of the end. We, like Roland, didn’t know what to expect when we finally got into the Dark Tower. And I don’t think anyone expected that the series would loop around to the beginning again, dumping Roland back in the Mohaine Desert to follow the Man in Black once more, unaware that he had already done so so many times before. It was an unsatisfying ending at first, but upon reflection, it does work, and there are two ways to look at it.

The first is that Roland is being taught a lesson, one which he still has not learned. He’s being taught to value life, to reset his priorities. From his youth, he was so focused on the Tower that he let all else fall aside – his friends, the girl he loved, and the sacred artifacts of his forefathers. He brought death with him, and passed it on to all whom he loved, and ended his quest as alone as he began it. And so, despite saving the multiverse, Roland failed his true quest – to learn how to love others and share who he was with them – and had to be sent back to start again. In appreciation of his effort, however, he was granted a change: the horn of Eld, which he had previously neglected on the field of the last battle of civilization. Perhaps it will make a difference.

The other way to look at this ending is a more metafictional one, something that Stephen King himself finds distasteful. Like it or not, though, one of the overriding themes of this series is the impact that fiction has on reality, and vice versa. To readers, a character might be more real than real people. We learn lessons from them, we have kind or unkind memories of them, and in many ways, our fictional characters possess a special reality. To a writer, this is even more true. Ask any writer and they will tell you about how their characters talk to them, sometimes appear in front of them, or even take over their bodies for a little while. A writer will discover things about a character that she never planned, as if the character himself were revealing them. The Dark Tower relies on this kind of ur-reality of fiction, up to and including fictional characters saving the life of their own writer.

So, by connecting the end of the last book with the beginning of the first, perhaps King is implicating us, the Constant Readers, in Roland’s suffering. Roland cannot rest as long as there are readers reading him, and we are all guilty of making him go through it again and again. While King may have created Roland and his quest, we propagate it, and every new reader ensures that it will never, ever end. [2]

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In the end, we have a series that started off strong, and then kind of careened to an unsatisfying end. Having been written intermittently over the course of thirty years, I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising. Ideas which seemed like good ones at the time served only to cause trouble later down the road, and loose ends that needed to be tied up took up far more time than they should have. Perhaps with a clearer vision of the journey at the beginning, King could have held it together better. And perhaps without his brush with death in 1999, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the last three volumes out as soon as he could.

It does, however, gift us with some wonderful characters, a rich and brilliant world, and a fictional cosmology that holds together all the worlds that King has created thus far. It’s an examination of the importance of fiction in our lives, and the way that stories can reach out and touch so many more people than the storyteller ever intends. If you are a fan of Stephen King, and you haven’t read this series yet, then you should. For all that the last couple of books disappoint, there is still much good to be found in the whole series, and the first five are generally really well done.

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There is more to read, if you’re interested. King’s assistant, Robin Furth, has put together an excellent Concordance, detailing pretty much everything you want to know about the series – characters, places, history, language and concepts. She has also written a series of graphic novels for Marvel Comics which detail Roland’s youth, starting with the events told in Wizard and Glass and going up to the terrible battle of Jericho Hill. So if the original series leaves you wanting more, there’s certainly more to be had.

That’s it, then. Long days and pleasant nights to you all.

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“Even when you were in the shadow of death there were lessons to be learned.”
– Jake (narration), The Dark Tower
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[1] To be fair – this book was published back in 2004. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you’re really going to be chuffed by some spoilers, and you have no one to blame but yourself if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

[2] A third option is suggested by his short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” from Everything’s Eventual, wherein a woman riding with her husband in a car on vacation keeps re-living a terrible accident. It is implied that she is dead, and that hell is the eternal repetition of one’s mistakes. It is possible that Roland is dead, and that this series is his Hell.

The Dark Tower on Wikipedia
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, Dark Tower, death, existentialism, fantasy, good and evil, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, time travel, world-crossing

Review 78: Bridge of Birds


Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

It’s not often that you read a book and it immediately jumps up into your “Best Books Ever” list. Usually it takes some time and reflection, careful thought about the book’s characters, themes and message. Perhaps a re-read would be in order, and then, after some consideration, you might say, “Yeah. I think this is a really, really good book that I want everyone else to read.”

I think I hit that somewhere around page 182.

This is, as the cover tells us, a novel of “An ancient China that never was.” It’s set in the long-ago, indeterminate past (of which China has so very much), and starts off in a small village with an unusual history. The village of Ku-Fu, the story goes, was home to a section of the Great Wall, commissioned by the Emperor of China many centuries ago. This would not in itself be notable, except that it was built 122 miles south of the rest of the wall, thus serving no real purpose whatsoever. The general in charge was, he maintains, given the orders by the Emperor of Heaven himself, a story which held no sway with the more earthly Emperor who was ready to execute him. A more believable story was produced – that a great dragon had rested itself on that part of the wall, thus moving it, and it shouldn’t be tampered with.

And so the village of Ku-Fu became home to what was known as The Dragon’s Pillow, a place that would one day loom large in the history of not only the village, but all of China.

It is a peaceful village with the usual colorful characters that you get in such a place, such as the terrible partners Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, two greedy and unscrupulous men who hold the economic life of the village in their hands. When their misdeeds go too far, resulting in the horrible poisoning of many of the village’s children, the story’s narrator, Number Ten Ox (whose given name is Lu Yu, but he would not want to be confused with the famous author of The Classic of Tea) is tasked to bring a wise man from the city to diagnose the problem and find a solution. Out of the many wise men, Ox finds Li Kao, a cynical, world-weary curmudgeon with, as he so often tells us, a slight flaw in his character.

Together, Ox and Li Kao must travel the length and breadth of China to find the Great Root – a ginseng root that was kept by the mythical Princess of Birds, and whose healing properties are all that stand between the children of Ku-Fu and certain death. Along the way, they must travel terrible labyrinths, fight unimaginable monsters, battle against an immortal evil, bring peace to restless ghosts and solve the greatest mystery in the history of China – what happened to the Princess of Birds, beloved of the Star Shepherd, Prince of Heaven.

There is just so much to recommend this book, I don’t even know where to start. For one, it’s a lot of fun to read. The person who recommended it to me did so on the reasonable assumption that, since I like Terry Pratchett so much, I would probably like this book as well. And that was a very good assumption – there is a certain similarity between the two. Hughart uses humor very deftly, keeping the characters alive and interesting through even the most dangerous of times. Where Pratchett’s humor often feels like literary slapstick, however, Hughart’s is a bit more subtle. The characters are funny, yes, but the book was not written to make you laugh. It was written so that the reader would have a good time reading a story well-told.

And what a story it was. It begins with a fairly straightforward quest – a search for the Great Ginseng Root to cure the children of Ku-Fu – and turns into something so much larger than that. As the evil Duke of Ch’in says, they’re on the right quest, but for all the wrong reasons, a cryptic statement that takes a while to make sense. The scope of the story gets bigger and bigger as it goes on, and you realize that the pieces for this quest were put into place hundreds, if not thousands of years before the story actually started.

The history of China is on display here, if somewhat distorted for the purposes of entertainment. Hughart spent time living in the Far East and gained a healthy respect for its long and often unbelievable history and culture. The book includes elements of China’s history of inventiveness and ingenuity, as well as cultural myths that extend beyond its borders.

The characters themselves are wonderful, too. Number Ten Ox is an earnest, strong, well-meaning young man who has one goal in mind- save the children of his village. Li Kao is a devious old man who tends to use his wisdom and quick thinking for more nefarious purposes – thus the slight flaw in his character. There are a lot of notable minor characters as well, including Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, who somehow manage to turn up all through the story, always being chased by the people they’ve cheated. The Duke of Ch’in is a terrifying figure, Henpecked Ho is comically dark, and Miser Shen starts off utterly unlikable, but if there’s one character in the story that forces you to put down the book for a few minutes and gather your thoughts, it is he.

It’s a moving tale of hope and perseverance and the power of myth. It’s a story about the need for humanity to temper desire and what happens when we let our lives be governed by fear and greed. It’s about love and justice, revenge and history. It’s a book that almost immediately earned my respect and admiration, and that’s pretty hard to do.

So go get it. Block out some time when you can sit and fall into the story and really get absorbed in it, because let me promise you – it will be well worth it.

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“Take a large bowl. Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means ‘dry cup’ – and drink to the dregs.”
“And I will be wise?”
“Better. You will be Chinese.”
– Li Kao to Procipius, on attaining wisdom, Bridge of Birds
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Barry Hughart
Bridge of Birds on Wikipedia
Bridge of Birds at Amazon.com
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Review 64: Lamb


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If you’ve been following my reviews over the last few years, I don’t see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you’re not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet – there’s just too much nasty “Free Thinking” out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.

Okay, that’ll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I’m sorry for all the nasty stuff I said – come on back!

Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it’s Moore’s best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore’s style, but it’s also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he’s dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It’s all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn’t have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.

This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.

The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus’ Sidekick. He’s a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he’s clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend’s mission on this earth. He’s young Joshua’s best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua’s destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.

The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh’s search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels – compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.

Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot – or must not – know.

From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it’s like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.

Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.

Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.

Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.

Don’t get me wrong – while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh’s anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus’ story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.

As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples’ minds – he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.

He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He’s never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn’t allowed to Know women. We haven’s seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn’t get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he’s the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who’s been tapped to save humanity from itself. It’s a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.

More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn’t been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you’ll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won’t get it out right because you’ll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he’s been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.

Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff’s attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat – and I wish he had.

The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah – he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus’ humanity. I’m not a Christian – I don’t claim any religion, in fact – but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.

It’s a brilliant book, in my top ten….

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“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?”
– Biff and Josh, Lamb
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Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
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Christopher Moore’s homepage

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