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Book Review: Wizard and Glass -- An unexpected chapter in King's Dark Tower series

By Tzu-Mainn Chen

Many King fans consider The Dark Tower series to be his finest work. These books, loosely inspired by Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, are some of his most popular, even among people who refuse to read any other King novel.

Unfortunately, King seems to delight in torturing the readers of The Dark Tower by taking an exquisitely long time to write each book in the series. The first book, The Gunslinger, was published 15 years ago; the second, The Drawing Of The Three, came five years later; and The Wastelands came five years after that. And now, after another five year wait, the fourth novel, Wizard and Glass, has been released.

Is this book worth the wait? Well the answer depends on what the reader expects.

The central character of The Dark Tower is Roland, the last surviving gunslinger of another world. He is on a quest for the Dark Tower, a lynchpin of time and space which, once reached, can fix his crumbling world. The first three books in the series detail his long journey, during which he "draws" three people from our own world into his. By the end of The Wastelands, Roland and his companions are halfway to their destination.

In Wizard and Glass, their travels continue (the escape from the suicidal monorail, Blaine, will delight any believer in the intrinsic stupidity of artificial intelligence), but the bulk of the book is devoted to the story of Roland's past youth. And this is where Wizard and Glass differs from its predecessors. Far from being the cold and ruthlessly efficient machine described in the previous books, here Roland is an inexperienced teenager, prone to mistakes, but still surrounded by warmth and friends. Even more interesting, the central story is not the mixture of fantasy, science-fiction, and adventure that made the first three books so involving; instead, it is principally a love story.

This story begins when Roland and two friends, Cuthbert and Alain, enter the town of Hambry under assumed names. Ostensibly, they go there under the orders of Roland's father, lord of Gilead and the Inner Baronies, to ensure that the town is making adequate preparations for a feared rebellion. In reality, however, Roland is sent in order to protect him from members of the rebellion hidden within Gilead who desire his death. Unfortunately, once he arrives, it becomes clear that the government of Hambry is embroiled in a plot to supply the uprising. Another problem arises when Roland falls in love with Susan, who is under contract to produce a child with the married mayor of Hambry. Soon, Roland and his companions are forced into various political maneuverings as they try to uncover the conspiracy, while Roland tries to hide an affair with Susan. Further complications include the search for a pink crystal ball, the "glass" mentioned in the title, which can foretell the future, and a trio of gunmen, ominously named "The Big Coffin Hunters," who are determined to stop and kill Roland and his friends at all costs.

King writes with his usual verbosity, giving extensive backgrounds and descriptions to every place, person, and action. While some of his books have become uncomfortably bloated because of this style, but here the language serves to create a dreamlike mood which reinforces this tale of past love. The surrealistic illustrations by Dave McKean increase this effect. Adding to the poignancy of the story is the reader's knowledge that, out of all these characters from the past, Roland is the only one who survives into the present. The cloud of doom that overshadows the book effectively gives the sense of a world in which everything is rushing to oblivion, and where everything must lead to tragedy.

Those who expect Wizard and Glass to be as full of action as the other books in the series will definitely be disappointed. This is not to say that there aren't any vivid fight sequences, including a six-person Mexican standoff with three guns versus two knives and a slingshot, and an encounter in Roland's present with Maerlyn, the Ageless Stranger, who opposes Roland's quest.

Another disappointment is that the full story of Roland's past is not revealed; expected scenes of the fall of Gilead and the deaths of his fellow gunslingers are not present. But the story that King does write is well-crafted and well-told, making Wizard and Glass a welcome addition to The Dark Tower series.

By Stephen King

Illustrations by Dave McKean

720 pages

Publisher: NAL/Dutton

Format:Paperback

Pub. Price $17.95