For a discussion on the enormity of King's Dark Tower series, see this post. For a discussion on the story itself and its finale, read on. Spoilers ahead.
First, let's talk about Project Runway. On Project Runway, the judges are always talking about the finale collections being cohesive. Does this make sense as a collection. Would all of the pieces be in the closet of one girl. Et cetera. I don't think the PR judges would think The Dark Tower series is cohesive. But maybe that's on purpose? There's westerns and romance and science fiction and this 80/90's mogul-building stuff that reminded me of Wall Street. There's also magic and science and technology, all inter-woven. There's a Spielbergian touch of familial love and isn't that nice. But then on top of that there's Stephen King. In a Stephen King novel. In an interview with Neil Gaiman, King toys with the idea of rewriting the books to remove himself from the story. This seems like a good idea.
Over at Birth Movies Death, Evan Saathoff has a nice review of the novel from the perspective of someone who grew up with the novels, waiting for the last few to come out. He does a great job describing how fractured the series seems and how anti-climactic and disappointing the end of the journey is, though some of that is unavoidable and inherent in reaching one's goal.
As I mentioned in the Stephen of Maine post, he inserts several characters from his other works into the Dark Tower novels, to varying degrees of success. The Randall Flagg/Walter o'Dim/Man in Black character is excellent and welcome in any incarnation. Even though he doesn't appear in every Dark Tower novel, he's the closest thing the series comes to a Big Bad. It also served as a reminder I really, really need to reread The Stand. The history this guy and Roland shared made him so interesting, so entwined in the search for the Tower. I'm almost disappointed we didn't see more of him. He is absolutely the most successful insert of the bunch, in part because King may have originally envisioned him as a unique character, separate from The Stand's Randall Flagg. On the other hand, Pere Callahan from 'Salem's Lot never fits in quite as well as King wants him to. He never really joins Roland's ka-tet and his rehash of his story in Wolves seems like a waste of time. When he has a role in the story, I found myself wishing King had found a way to use a member of the ka-tet instead. However, he's still a better fit than Ted Brautigan or Patrick Danville. Brautigan just seems pointless. While the Breakers sequence in The Dark Tower is interesting and provides more meaning to the conflict in The Wolves of the Calla, it didn't need Brautigan. Instead, Brautigan's another diversion from getting to the meat of the story and spending time with the people we care about. Without Brautigan, the Breakers sequence doesn't lose anything. In fact, it might make it more stream lined and effective. But no character is more unwelcome than Patrick Danville. Danville shows up at the eleventh hour, with only a couple of hundred pages left of Roland's tale. And he, not Roland, is the one to kill the Crimson King (though the Crimson King never really mattered anyway, more on that later). Why couldn't Danville's skill belong to one of the ka-tet? Or King find some way to get rid of the other King without Danville? He doesn't add anything to the story, except getting Oy killed and providing a couple of opportunities for Roland to display a lapse in judgement.
As for the lack of cohesion, some of these random jaunts of story work, some don't. Susan Delgado in Wizard and Glass, for instance, falls firmly on the winning side. At first, I was frustrated - can we just bet back to the ka-tet and the journey to the Tower already? But after a few chapters I was thoroughly sucked in and enjoyed the story and was sad when it was over. And if there's a character we should ever waste a book on getting to know, it's Roland of Gilead. An entire book on his backstory? After Wizard, I would be up for a couple more of those. The Wolves of the Calla, on the other hand, is less successful. Sure, it was nice to see the gunslingers doing their thing, from having the townsfolk ask them the three questions to the big battle itself, as opposed to just following the Beam, but did we really need a book and a half for it? Did all those folks really need to die? It might have been better to shorten it. Half a book, tops. The only other plot in this section is Susannah's pregnancy, which also could have been shortened. It lasts two books as is. If Stephen King ever rewrites the story, the series might benefit from a shortened version of the Wolves, lasting only a few chapters, with a reference to the original novel for the dedicated readers.
My other big complaint with the series, and really just the ending, are Mordred and the Crimson King. I hate these guys. Not because they're so evil and kill Oy, but because, to be frank, they suck. They suck as characters, they suck as the Big Bad. It's like the season of Buffy where the three geeks are the Big Bad. Seriously? Those guys?
First, Mordred. I think we spend more time on the pregnancy, on fearing the guy's arrival, than we do with him actually being alive in the universe. His birth was a mess. I didn't understand what was going on. Did we know he was going to be a spider beforehand? Am I supposed to fear this guy? The only reactions Mordred really elicited in me were disgust and disappointment. Disappointment first in that he kills Randall/Walter. His death is extremely anti-climactic and out of character for Randall/Walter. The idiot, who has been so cunning for books now, just shows up in front of Mordred and basically asks to be eaten. What? This is how this incredible character dies? Are you kidding me? And then there's Mordred himself. Again, he sucks. He gets food poisoning and dies, the end. At one point he shits his pants. Seriously. Roland shoots him, the end. Sure, he kills Oy first, but Oy was depressed and ready to join Jake at the clearing by then anyway. He's never as scary or important as King needs him to be. I would rather Randall kill him and keep chasing Roland. I also never really cared that Roland was some how the Dad. It never really went anywhere. As for the disgust - King gets really graphic with his depictions of Mordred eating. It made me nauseous. This was the most effective part of Mordred.
The Crimson King is even worse. I feel like the "Crimson King" is just a term that starts being used. Is he ever explained? The descriptions of him are minimal - he's this blob of color on the outside of a balcony of the Tower. I imagined an animated thing, never scary or intimidated. For this bloody, gruesome tale, the big bad at the end seems like a Disney villain. So I guess I'm not really that upset Danville is the one to get rid of him - he was never that important or scary to begin with.
Random question - what happened to the black ball of evil or whatever it was? Are we to assume that the terrorist attacks of September 11 also destroyed the ball? Is this ka - is King saying the attacks happened to destroy the ball? Or did the ball even cause the attacks to happen?
That's the end of my complaining. Overall, I really enjoyed the thing. I will be reading it again in the near future. Should have read it a long time ago. My affection to King knows no bounds.
The world building was excellent. I never thought of myself as a fantasy person but after this and Game of Thrones I may have to consider. What was most impressive though, and what I will really take away from this series, is the ka-tet. That group of four, or five, if you count Oy. Just such a perfect balance and each character unique and well-created. I read some review of The Sopranos a long time ago and the person said that a mark of a good group of characters and a good writer is that each line could only apply to one character. That's certainly true of The Sopranos and absolutely true of these novels. If given just the character lines, it's easy to pick which came from Roland or Susannah or Eddie or Jake. Or even Oy. King creates this beautiful little family of its own kind. And when those characters do leave the ka-tet, suddenly everything is broken. The end of the ka-tet is built up in the novels but in a way that feels earned. Everything really does come crashing down at Eddie's death and, after what these people have been through and what they have come to mean to each other, it should. The family isn't whole any more. Jake's death was the most heartbreaking for me. And to save that shitbag-version of King! I cried. A lot. But Oy and Roland had such honest, respectful reactions to the loss of Jake. And I hope the rich lady really did go back and plant a rose. Then there's Susannah. When Susannah goes back to some version of New York in the end, I have to wonder if that can ever be satisfying. Sure, maybe she'll find some version of Eddie and Jake. Even a dog to fill in for Oy. But how can they be a family without Roland or their adventures? The Eddie and Jake stand ins never experienced what Susannah did. How can she build a life with them? But let's hope she figures it out - someone deserves happiness in this story. It was fitting that Roland reach the Tower alone but at least not everyone had to die for it to happen.
Also, the ending was really lovely and fitting. To be honest, I wouldn't mind it if Stephen King re-wrote the books as a sequel, with a wiser Roland in possession of the Horn of Eld. Though, to be honest, I don't really remember much about the Horn or it being a Big Deal. Maybe this time Roland has what he needs to make it to the Tower with everyone alive and the ka-tet intact.
My final point of interest is an apparent upcoming adaptation. But it's unfilmable! It sounds like Sony is getting close to putting a production together. The casting of the ka-tet is the biggest hurdle - these people need to really mesh and create a family. Usually, when I read a book, I think about the casting. And then the film ruins it. Gone Girl, for example. I firmly had in mind people. Someone young with a punchable face for Nick - a Ryan Reynolds or a Chris Pine. And they go cast Ben Fucking Affleck. Nothing about the description of him in the book lines up with Ben Affleck. I've reread the book since seeing the movie and now I can't get dumb Ben Affleck out of my head. I take solace in the fact that David Fincher doesn't like him either.
The CGI-ed characters are also a consideration. Mordred will be tough - his changing body can't look hokey. But then there's the important stuff they need to convey meaningfully. The rose and it's aura. Oy and his gold-rimmed eyes. It can't just be a talking dog. Maybe get the Guardians of the Galaxy guys - what they did with the raccoon and Groot was pretty impressive.