Review: The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) by Stephen King

Well it was bound to happen at some point in my literary review career…..the dreaded DNF (did not finish) tag. But little did I know that this would happen to one book that I was convinced I would love.

When I finished the A Song of Ice and Fire AKA Game of Thrones series, I was longing for something similar and just as epic. I can’t tell you how many times The Dark Tower series was recommended…..countless times.

I have it in paperback and on my iPad, that’s how much I wanted to read it. I even waited until the mood was perfect and I was ready to get into an epic. And with the first trailer for the film being released recently, I knew the time was right for me to start this one.

So on a rainy spring Saturday morning, I sat down to start this long awaited novel….and then it happened…..the question looming in my mind…..what the f*ck am I reading?

Set in a world of extraordinary circumstances, filled with stunning visual imagery and unforgettable characters, The Dark Tower series is King’s most visionary feat of storytelling, a magical mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that may well be his crowning achievement.

In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger.

He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

This new edition of The Gunslinger has been revised and expanded throughout by King, with new story material, in addition to a new introduction and foreword. It also includes four full-color illustrations in the hardcover and trade paperback formats (summary from Goodreads).

After reading 17% of the novel, my first thought was, ‘I literally don’t know what I am reading right now’. I felt like I was dropped down in the middle of some weird, post apocalyptic western ghost town in the desert with a character that I knew nothing about and who kept hiding things from me as a reader. There was this underlying sense that eventually I would get to know what was going on at some point, so I kept reading. But then by 30% I just couldn’t do it anymore.

This book wasn’t very long (300 ish pages) so for being 30% of the way through and still not have any idea what was going on, just bothered me. I realistically couldn’t stand the thought of trudging through any more of this book. I wanted to, desperately, because I hear that the series gets better. However, trying to figure out what was happening was difficult. The main title character, the Gunslinger, did nothing to illicit any sympathy or kinship as a reader. I never felt like I knew who he was nor did I even LIKE him. Some would argue that that’s the point of this book….to unsettle you as a reader but for me, I feel like there has got to be at least ONE character that I could connect to and why not the title character?

The Man in Black, was ominous and strange…I did want to know more about him and his purpose in the novel, but at the same time I wasn’t even sure if he was real or just a figment of the Gunslinger’s imagination.

Typically, even if a book isn’t ‘good’, I will trudge along until I am done so that I can give a well thought out, structured, and fair review. However, in this case, I just couldn’t stand the thought of trying to get through this strange and unsettling novel.  After 30% I knew that this one just wasn’t for me.

Now that said, Stephen King is a literary giant. He’s written countless novels and this series is HUGE among sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans. I am sure there is a lot to love about this series, or else why do so many people love it? Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was expecting something completely different. Maybe the mood just wasn’t right. Or maybe Stephen King just isn’t for me. I haven’t read any of his other books and I don’t like his movies, not because they are horror (horror is fine both in cinema and literature) but something about the films and books just overwhelms me. I feel confused by the story structure and like I’m missing something huge but year I can’t put my finger on what.

In the end, this just isn’t for me. Will I attempt it again? Maybe but not any time soon.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) by Stephen King 

  • Kindle Edition, 336 pages
    Published July 1st 2003 by Signet (first published June 10th 1982)
    ASIN B000OCXILW
  • Review copy provided by: Personal collection

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 1 out of 5 DNF (DID NOT FINISH)

Genre: fantasy, dark fantasy, epic, horror

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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8 Comments

  1. hughyonn

     /  May 25, 2017

    I read the book when it first came out. It was the first King novel I did not care for. Just a collection of words that went no where.

    Reply
  2. Sabrina Flynn

     /  May 25, 2017

    Oh, wow. Glad I’m not the only one. Even though everyone recommends it, I haven’t tried this series yet, but I’ve tried to read a few of his other books and can’t even stand the first page. Something about his writing style grates my brain.

    Reply
  3. This book is basically just dipping into what will become a complex and fleshed out world, and unfortunately that is its drawback. It hints at something greater but never quite gives enough to become tantalizing. It is definitely my least favorite of the series and can understand why people don’t like it. Kudos for trying to trudge through it!

    Reply
  4. M'arck

     /  March 2, 2018

    About halfway thru The Gunslinger and have struggled from page 1… already a month at a book that page-wise should be done in a week! So far it reads like a teenager’s first attempt at writing, trying to sound cool & mysterious, but without any plot or character development worth noting thus far… I have already bought the next 3 books (all about twice or 3 times the size of this, but thankfully 2nd hand) so please dear sweet frickin’ lord, let it get better!!!

    Reply
  5. Matthew

     /  March 4, 2018

    This book and series is one of my absolute favourites, so I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like it, though I can understand why so many people have struggled to get into it!

    I’m trying to remember what my first reactions to it were! I think it was my first encounter with a true antihero as the protagonist, and I understand how Roland could seem unsympathetic, though he did intrigue me.

    His killing of the village of Tull WAS shocking and ruthless, his treatment of poor Allie (the bartender woman) IS pretty cold, and what he did to the preacher woman Sylvia IS quite brutal.

    I was certainly shocked by these things and probably repulsed as well. Yet, I did begin to sympathise with Roland, or at the least I didn’t condemn him or dislike/hate him (and therefore I didn’t lose interest in what was happening to him – I’m with you on unsympathetic characters not holding my interest).

    I’m not entirely sure why I sympathised with him so strongly, even in this first book where I’ll grant he is at his most unsympathetic, but I’ll try and explain it and perhaps hope you might reconsider your thoughts on the book and on Roland as a character, as I think he’s one of the most iconic and fascinating protagonists I’ve ever read, and I grew to love and feel for him deeply by the second and certainly third book.

    So as to why I DID sympathise with him in “The Gunslinger”, at least enough for me to want to continue reading. Firstly, I didn’t find anything he did or said to be sadistic or cruel; his main crime was indifference. He SEEMED ultimately indifferent to the fates of Allie (the woman he slept with) and everyone else in Tull, but he didn’t go out of his way to hurt people (with the exception perhaps of the preacher, though he felt he had freed her from possession by a demon), and I think he did treat Allie gently in a way; he was certainly cold towards her, but only in the sense that he was utterly uncompromising about the fact that he would leave her, and that he had to reach the man in black. The rest of the way he treated her just showed that he was utterly closed off from his emotions and from any kind of emotional involvement with other people. In fact, the entire series is, in a way, about Roland regaining his humanity and learning to love again.

    However, to me, that unwillingness to form any emotional attachments, however small, implied incredible suffering in his past – people don’t become that way naturally – so that made me interested in how he got to his current state. Indeed, we find out a fair amount in flashbacks and inference and what Roland says in this book to learn how he became this way, and this is a constant theme throughout the series; his lack of humanity, if you like, is not ignored.

    As for killing the villagers, it sure was an introduction! King didn’t pull any punches, and the scene is perhaps a bit gratuitously violent (I’m never sure how to think about the portrayal of extreme violence like this, in any medium), but it went to show how relentless Roland is and how skilled he is. I don’t think he was entirely unaffected by the killing either; it’s interesting to think of him acting like a robot in this scene (which, if he did act like one, would indeed be unsympathetic), because the way he fires and reloads his guns is referred to as almost automatic (and therefore robotic), so strongly has it been drilled into him; but he did seem afraid during the attack, almost terrified, and desperate as well. He is described at one point during the scene as realising that he had started screaming, which seems like a pretty emotional response to me, and he does seem reflective and somewhat guilty afterwards. Most importantly, he did act in self defence, so I think his actions can be justified.

    The main thing that got to me about Roland, though, was how incredibly alone he seems. I’ve never read a character before who was so desperately lonely and tragic, yet there was an undeniable quiet dignity about him that I found so admirable. I don’t know if you reached the part where he meets this young boy called Jake in the desert (who is actually from our world, New York specifically), but the way Roland so easily comes to love Jake like a son was indicative to me of how desperate he was to love again. I did perceive him to be, essentially, a very sensitive person and basically a “good” person, but it is buried so deep after endless years of solitude, fighting, terrible personal loss and a brutal and emotionally deprived upbringing, that it is hard to make out at first. (Thanks if you’ve read this far by the way, apparently I’ve got a lot to say lol!)

    I will admit that part of my interest in this book (and Roland as a character) came from the weirdness of the world, the merging of western and sci-fi and fantasy and a bit of horror. Yet even if you’re not a fan of “fantasy” fiction (or any of the other genres I mentioned) I think you can get something out of this book; I found almost all the dialogue fascinating; the way Roland seemed to have a completely alien culture and mind-set yet still be a human character, and a relatable one (to me anyway), was compelling, and I’ve also always liked the ‘last of his kind’ trope.

    Anyway, to finish, I’ll just add that this book is substantially different in tone, feel, storyline, pacing, structure and the quality of the writing, from the other books. Most readers say that the books following this first volume are much better. More is explained, sympathetic characters from our world are introduced and the tone of the writing is warmer, more personal, more ‘real’, a bit less enigmatic. The series gains a definite sense of momentum and direction in the second book.

    I wonder also if, like you said, you might have been given the wrong impression/had different expectations when you read the book; while it’s the beginning of what I and many others would consider an ‘epic’ series (both in scope and length!), this first book is much more reflective and mysterious in tone. It’s slow-paced (though short and I found it dreamy and atmospheric, with a fair amount of action too to be honest), and it’s deliberately enigmatic, something you seem to have particularly disliked. It’s true we don’t really know much about Roland, this world we’re in, the man in black or why Roland is chasing him, but the way this eerie, evocative world that is essentially post-apocalyptic (“The world has moved on” is the phrase King uses to describe a kind of general ‘winding down’ affecting time, civilisation, even geography and distance), I found compelling and gripping, and unlike anything i’d read before. The hints that this world is a parallel version of Earth far, far in the future set after some kind of cataclysm were tantalising.

    So, if you’re interested in reading a creative, incredibly imaginative series which is seriously genre-bending, features an unforgettable cast of complex, morally fascinating characters with amazing world-building, maybe give it another shot, but be prepared first to get through a contemplative, mysterious and enigmatic first novel. This I can assure you; if you make it through and read the second book, you will like it much better (if you don’t I’ll eat my hat 😉 )

    Anyway, thanks a lot if you’ve read so far! I hope I’ve made you at least consider giving the series another try at some point, and if not, fair enough, some books indeed aren’t for everyone.

    May you have long days and pleasant nights! (A saying of Gilead, where Roland is from, that I’ve always liked.)

    Reply
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