For the fourth installment of his epic Dark Tower series, Stephen King goes back in time to Roland Deschain’s early youth. After surviving Blaine the Monorail’s suicidal crash into a rail terminal, Roland and his ka-tet find themselves in Kansas City. Not our Kansas City, but one Stephen King fans will recognize instantly. The flu virus known as Captain Tripps has devastated this world. Yes, they’ve wandered into the world of The Stand. And we are explicitly shown that this world is not ours. The Kansas City baseball team is the Monarchs, not the Royals. One of the cars left behind is not a Toyota or a Chevy or any other make common in 1986. It’s a Takuro Spirit. But there is more. A large fog-like object lurks along an abandoned I-70, making a noise that makes our travelers sick. It is a “thinny,” a place where existence fading out. Roland has seen this before, centuries before, actually, in a far-flung barony known as Meijis.
In that time, young Roland and his friends Cuthbert and Alain are sent west to Meijis to count resources – horses, food, boats – that the Affiliation, the group of baronies within Midworld, can use in their war against John Farson, the so-called “Good Man.” While there, Roland meets and falls in love with Susan Delgado, a local who is promised to the mayor as his “gilly” (a sort of concubine). It’s a forbidden love that leads to the discovery of a plot by the leading men of Meijis to throw in with Farson. It is also the greatest tragedy of Roland’s life as his whole future is destroyed. By the time he returns to his native Gilead, he learns his destiny is to seek The Dark Tower, the center of all existence.
In the framing story, in the epic’s “present,” Roland and his ka-tet come across an exaggerated version of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. And who is the Wizard? The ruse is created by Roland’s father’s wizard, Marten Broadcloak, who reveals that he is now Randall Flagg. It is also here that the Crimson King of Insomnia is the driving evil force in all of existence, and that all of King’s fiction (with the exception of Carrie, apparently) is part of The Dark Tower’s tapestry.
The framing story, which includes Eddie of New York’s flippant outsmarting of Blaine the Suicidal Monorail, could have made a decent standalone novel within Dark Tower series. Wandering into the world of The Stand and into a sick parody of The Wizard of Oz offers a rich amount of creative fodder, as well as making for a shorter novel. The story of Roland and Susan is novel-length story in and of itself. It might have been better as two shorter books. Still, The Dark Tower shows a renewed energy in King’s writing. Reading this, I really did want to turn the page and would feel let down when work or other life events pulled me away from the book.