The Dark Tower IV: Wizard And Glass by Stephen King (1997) 845 p.
The previous book ended with Roland’s motley crew escaping the ruined city of Lud aboard Blaine the Mono, a train controlled by a half-insane artificial intelligence. Wizard and Glass begins with them defeating Blaine in a riddling contest and arriving at their final destination of Topeka… specifically Topeka, Kansas, in the world of King’s other grand novel The Stand. This is as jarring for the characters as it is for the reader, as they explore a corpse-choked, post-apocalyptic city and wonder why the hell they’re there.
It’s of little concern, really, since the majority of the book (about 80%) is flashback, a story of Roland’s youth that he tells the others around a campfire. I knew this in advance, which is perhaps why I didn’t hate it as much as those who were waiting for this book for six years. (I also know Roland’s ultimate fate, and I like the idea, but we’ll see how the execution goes.) Roland’s world is an interesting one, and so is his backstory; I was waiting to have it filled in for quite some time, and the fourth book is the logical point in a seven-book series for that to happen.
The flashback story takes place when Roland is fourteen years old, shortly after the much briefer flashbacks in The Gunslinger, which detail how he beat his teacher and became the youngest gunslinger ever. Roland’s world is already beginning to crumble, as a warlord named John Farson raises armies and starts wars in the lands surrounding Gilead, stronghold of the gunslingers. Roland and his two friends, Cuthbert and Alain, have been sent to the far east to the sleepy seaside barony of Mejis. Ostensibly this is to take stock of the barony’s resources for logistical purposes; an actuality, it’s to keep the boys out of harm’s way. Things are not as they seem in Mejis, however, and the three young gunslingers soon find themselves in worse danger than they were in Gilead.
Unlike the previous books, which all involved time-honoured fantasy quest travel, Wizard and Glass‘ flashback section takes place entirely in Mejis’ central town of Hambry, and the deserts and ranches surrounding it. There’s a cast of several dozen characters, a mystery to follow, and a well-established sense of place – orchards, farms, the inns and mansions of the town, the local witch’s hut and a box canyon containing a bizarre and dangerous anomaly are all locations visited more than once. Particularly interesting is “Citgo,” a ruined industrial complex dating back to the ancient times of Roland’s world, where a few automated pumps still draw crude oil from the ground, and words like HONDA and SHELL are stamped on decaying vehicles and tankers. Despite appearances, Roland’s world is not ours in the future, yet there’s obviously been some crossing over in the past – the song “Hey Jude” is popular, people talk of the Jesus-Man, and Mejis has a Spanish-speaking underclass of servants and peasants. And Citgo is not just a nice worldbuilding touch, but an integral part of the plot.
For a book of eight hundred pages (and why is always the fourth book that gets bloated?) Wizard and Glass could easily have dragged on, but it’s paced well and I never found myself reluctant to read it. There are a few chapters here and there that dawdle, especially those dealing with Roland’s first love (romance is not King’s strongest hand, which he freely admits) but on the whole this is quite a page-turner – after you get past the rocky start with one of those weird, shuddering scenes that grosses you out and makes you wonder at authorial motives. King establishes his characters well, particularly the rough-and-hard trio of thugs who run the town’s “security” and emerge as Roland’s bitter enemies. These men are not one-dimensional villains, but believeable bastards who have arrived at their current positions after a lifetime of immoral decisions.
The ending was also enjoyable, one of those well-constructed climaxes like a chess end-game where the pieces are making bold strategic moves and quickly knocking each other off the board; one of those sequences where, as a writer, I can feel the bare skeleton of the plot underneath, who needs to be where, what needs to happen, who has to die, and with plenty of exciting action scenes. The last one of those I read was Snow Crash.
At the end of this we have an extra hundred pages of the “real” story, concerning how Roland and his new gang escape Topeka after encountering some old enemies. It moves very quickly and feels almost rushed; somewhat unneccesary, in fact. If this book was going to be predominantly backstory, I don’t see why the frame narrative was needed at all, let alone why King dragged it out to an almost-but-not-quite story that takes up 200 pages split down the middle by the enormous chasm that is the flashback. But, hey, whatever.
On the whole, I’m glad this book turned out to be much better than I expected. There are several loose ends, which Roland suggests he may tell at another time, and I hope he does. Maybe not through flashbacks as long this one – the Dark Tower awaits, after all – but he’s an intriguing character from an intriguing world, and I’m now invested in the fate of his old friends and want to know how, precisely, they met their gruesome deaths.