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Wizard and Glass, Stephen King, Plume, 1997, 672 pp.
Note: This is the fourth book in King's Dark Tower series, following The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands.
Stephen King is probably the most famous horror writer alive. He's been writing for over twenty-five years now, and shows no signs of letting up. I admit that I'm not familiar with most of his latest works, having lost interest in horror when I was no longer a teenager. But I have a keen interest in the Dark Tower series, because it's interesting to see King's talent stretching across a longer work like this, in a genre that could be called dark fantasy. However, I was wary of this fourth book because of how disappointed I was with The Waste Lands. Wizard and Glass looked to suffer from the same problem, bloat, that had stretched out the lacklustre story of The Waste Lands. I'm happy to say that Wizard and Glass is a fabulous book, the best in the series, and certainly one of the better King books I've ever read. King fuses his rather visceral sensibilities with a bit of old-fashioned love and tragedy here, and pulls off the near-impossible feat of making the fourth book in a series (of a projected seven) the best of the bunch.
In its opening sequences, Wizard and Glass deals with the cliffhanger situation left over from The Waste Lands. Roland the gunslinger, and his ka-tet (King's word for a group of people drawn together by fate) of Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy, are trapped onboard Blaine the suicidal train. They have to beat this massive computer intelligence that is Blaine at a riddle competition in order to live. They do so, because they are the heroes, of course, but King makes it an amusing ride. And it's certainly not a solution you would find in a science fiction story that deals with some kind of rogue AI. Nice work. After that, the ka-tet travels a little further towards the Dark Tower, and then spends a long night listening to Roland tell a story about his past. This story makes up the bulk of the book, and King really shows off his talent here. Roland is fourteen, the son of the best gunslinger (read most powerful nobleman) in Gilead. He catches his mother in bed with another man, Marten, who turns out to be a wizard (and the wizard of the title, but I'll talk more about that later). His father sends him out to the country so that Roland won't do anything foolish, like challenge Marten. Along with Roland go two other young men, Alain and Cuthbert, out to the sleepy village of Hambry. But is it sleepy, or is there evil lurking about...
Of course there is, and the three boys soon find themselves neck-deep in trouble. An invading army wants to use Hambry for certain resources. There are three men who want the boys dead. A witch lives nearby and she gets angry with them too. And, to complicate matters, Roland falls in love. King weaves all of these elements together with ease, and displays his knack for creating a large cast of characters in a community (however twisted some of them might be). The story moves along to its inevitable end, and we find out why Roland has become the man he is.
King does well to focus on Roland's past. Roland was never completely unsympathetic, but he was always a hard, ruthless man, a killer in the name of his cause. But he is fighting insidious forces of entropy -- "The world has moved on" is a common phrase in the series -- and the Dark Tower is ever elusive. His teenage self, and his lover, Susan, are portrayed with total credibility, and much of the tragedy is in contrast to what Roland has become. The people of Hambry are characterized effectively, even though some of them are pawns in the service of the plot (or, worse, of the witch!). Susan was an especially strong character, but I liked Roland's two friends as well, Alain and Cuthbert. I was less than happy with Marten, because it turns out he is the same as Flagg (The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon), and the same as about every other man/force of evil in King's books. Literally. At one point in Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet walks into the world of The Stand with superflu and all. There are also several mentions of the mythology in It, like the Turtle. King talks about this in his Afterword: "I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making" (671). Parts of this tendency worked for me, but it also seemed a bit cheesy. King has every right to rip off himself, and thankfully this recycled material makes up only a small part of the present book.
Wizard and Glass is probably best pigeonholed (if that's what critics are supposed to do) as dark fantasy. The forces of magic aren't often on the side of Roland and his friends -- they must rely on their wits (which is a good thing) or their guns. It seems evil has the most magic, or at least on the remnants of magic. The glass of the title is a piece of Maerlyn's Rainbow, but it only shows the worst aspects of people's lives and actions. Roland relies on the Path of the Beam to lead him to the Dark Tower -- it is a clear line of force emanating from the Tower, and somehow holds the worlds together -- but that is about the only helpful magic he comes across. Often, the series reads like a kind of post-apocalyptic science fiction story, except that here everything is simply winding down, unspooling: time, space, magic. It's an interesting question to consider what Roland will do once he has reached the Dark Tower -- hopefully King has an ending in store that matches up to the journey.
Last modified: July 13, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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