Book review: The Waste Lands by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #3)

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The third book is probably my favourite so far (I’m on book number six, Song of Susannah, at the time of writing this review), though I have my reservations about it. Having drawn first Roland, then the other major characters for the series, the story is more settled and its eventual destination is less up in the air, subject to King’s (often drug or alcohol induced, let’s be honest) whimsy.

The Waste Lands picks up in the forest just beyond the beach Roland found his two companions, Eddie and Susannah, on, three months after Odetta and Detta’s doorway confrontation. Roland has been training Eddie and Susannah in the way of a gunslinger. But all’s not well with Roland: having stopped Jake’s (first) death in the second novel, his mind is tearing itself apart, one part insisting that Jake is dead, and the other insisting that he’s still alive. As the trio find the Path of the Beam, which will lead them to its centre, the Dark Tower, Roland’s condition deteriorates, as does Jake’s back in New York.

Roland, Eddie and Susannah eventually pull Jake back through to their side. The relief of this scene – for some weird reason you want Jake and Roland reunited, although it’s obvious that Roland can’t really be trusted with the welfare of the individual members of their ka-tet, their group – is undercut by what can only be described as a rape, though King plays it like it’s a victory for Susannah (or the Detta part of her, anyway). It sucks. I’ve always thought of King as more or less benign, but the sexual aspects of his fiction often go to dark places and honestly the novel could’ve done without it, though not the series, as we see later.

With Jake (and a bumbler named Oy) completing their ka-tet, the group set off to find Blaine the Mono – a train that could take them across the wastelands and bring them nearer the tower. But first, they have to get through an otherworldly, gang-infested New York called Lud…

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scriber (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.24/5)
The best feature of the book: There’s more emotional investment in the characters.
The worst feature of the book: Lud sucks. Blaine sucks.
Trigger warnings: Nonconsensual content of all shades. Evil technology. Hazardous conditions.
You’ll like this if… You, like me, just want to finish the bloody series.

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Book review: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #2)

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When I first read these novels more than a decade ago, the only thing that got me past Roland’s betrayal of Jake at the end of The Gunslinger was curiosity about whether Jake would return, and remembering this is what inspired me to keep reading this time around. The Gunslinger doesn’t paint Roland Deschain in the best of light: he cuts a lonely, implacable figure that verges on the sociopathic, and the lack of supporting characters in The Gunslinger make it hard to draw an outsider’s bead on him.

This changes in the second novel in the series. Having tracked down and confronted The Man in Black in the previous novel, Roland wakes up on a beach apparently years after their conversation knowing that he has to “draw” three others to his quest. He sets out to do that, sickening on his journey from an attack by a monster that took most of a hand and a bit of foot, looking for people he knows only as “The Prisoner”, “The Lady in the Shadows” and “Death”…

More human this time round though not always humane, it’s as much a story about a fantastical quest for a tower through foreign worlds than it is about a man finding friendship amid duty and honour.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Drawing of the Three
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1987, 2003)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.23/5)
The best feature of the book: More characters means more movement, more intrigue, more plot. The Drawing of the Three reads as less self-indulgent than The Gunslinger.
The worst feature of the book: Though I understand King’s characterisation of Detta, the way she’s “othered” as an insane black woman to serve as temporary villain is offensive and to be honest, boring.
Trigger warnings: Racism, casual misogyny, unlikely romance.
You’ll like this if… You’re a fantasy fan or a Stephen King loyalist.

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

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Though I was a big Stephen King fan back in high school (a result as much of his books as our limited local library I fear), I’ve never actually finished The Dark Tower series. I zipped through the first three books and started on the fourth, but there was a long flashback and I lost my appetite for it. I’ve been meaning to reread and finish the series ever since, but it wasn’t until its sort-of adaptation loomed in theatres that I actually made good on my intentions.

The Gunslinger picks up Roland Deschain’s quest as he battles his way across a desert in pursuit of The Man in Black, a figure who (in The Gunslinger at least) is part phantom and part prophet – a shadow from the haunt of Roland’s past. Roland, his world’s last gunslinger (think Knight meets cowboy meets king), wants The Man in Black to lead him to the Dark Tower, a tower that stands at the centre of all worlds and holds them all together. Roland’s world is breaking down, and in finding the Tower he hopes to find a cure. But The Man in Black is a cunning enemy and has laid his traps well…

It was interesting to reread The Gunslinger a decade after I read it first. It’s not quite as good as I remember, but I think that’s maybe because ten years on I can better separate my appreciation of King as a writer from his actual work, and his work is often problematic. Reading The Gunslinger and its sequels (at the time of writing this, I’m on novel number five, The Wolves of Calla) it’s pretty hard not to run up against the “wall” of his maleness and even his whiteness, and many of the things I once found charming about his writing now annoy me.

Still, this is Stephen King we’re talking about, one of his generation’s most popular and prolific writers. He’s a storyteller with a passion for his characters, whether those characters take up whole novels or just a paragraph, and his interest in them feeds your own. The Gunslinger plants the seed from which the whole series sprouts: Roland, his ghosts, his loneliness and his stubborn, desperate, hopeless quest to change things the reader suspects are far past changing…

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Gunslinger
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1982, 2003)
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.99/5)
The best feature of the book: Probably King’s ability to draw in and draw together. Its biggest boon, though, is that it’s very accessible for a fantasy novel: not as remote and dense as high fantasy, but little like his usual fare either.
The worst feature of the book: The unlikely sex scenes.
Trigger warnings: There’s non-consensual sexual contact and murder of varying degrees of violence.
You’ll like this if… You’re a fantasy fan or a Stephen King loyalist.

Book review: Poison City by Paul Crilley (Delphic Division #1)

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To my shame, I’m not very clued up on the local [South African] speculative fiction scene, so when Paul Crilley’s Poison City first floated across my newsfeed as part of a giveaway I had no idea the story was set in South Africa. That and Goodreads’ advice that Crilley’s novel would appeal to Ben Aaronovitch fans was enough recommendation for me.

Poison City tells the story of Brit immigrant Gideon Tau and his adventures in the insidious and supernatural underbelly of Durban as a special investigator for the Delphic Division, the secret South African branch of the police who deal with things that go bump in the night (or orishas; beings of varying power, from low grunts to deities). Like every noir detective, Tau’s battling demons on more than the professional front, also having to deal with the death of his daughter and the subsequent unravelling of his marriage. When a case turns up involving a dead vampire, Tau and his boss Armitage are pulled into an Apocalyptic showdown.

Tau’s Durban is compelling and rich in atmosphere, and he paints it with a disenchanted lover’s hand: lovingly but unflinchingly. I’d have been content to read about Tau and the Delphic Division’s adventures till Kingdom come. But as the story progresses, Poison City veers into Philip Pullman/Neil Gaiman territory, into divine plots and Armageddon. Crilley’s take on (for lack of a better word) Christian mythology is interesting but tainted with an atheist’s biblical literalism. Still, I did finish the book in a day’s time, so I can’t fault it on intrigue.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Poison City
Author: Paul Crilley
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2016)
Rating: 2.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.03/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s atmospheric, blackly amusing and scathing towards the follies of authority and humanity. The bits with the dog are funny.
The worst feature of the book: The cynicism is wearing. Tau is a hotbed of white disenfranchisement wrapped in a slick black exterior.
Trigger warnings: Blasphemy of various intensity. Gore. Situations that allude to child abuse. General wickedness. Lots of South African slang. Unwise clothing choices on the part of the narrator.
You’ll like this if… You like this genre of fiction; you like Ben Aaronovitch, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman or Jim Butcher; you want to read something South African for a change.

Book review: Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley (The Checquy Files #2)

I enjoyed the first book in the Checquy series, The Rook, but I can honestly say I liked Stiletto. O’Malley seems to have settled into his story world in this novel. It’s a funnier read, well-paced and not as bureaucratically bogged down as the first novel. There are twists and turns aplenty and a few new faces added to the cast of Checquy regulars.

Stiletto picks up The Rook’s aftermath. Negotiations between supernatural centuries-old enemies the Checquy and the Grafters are under way. Felicity Clements and Odette Leliefeld, both sceptical about the intentions of the other, are forced to work together to save these negotiations from sabotage by a shadowy group known as The Antagonists – Grafter enemies keen to see the alliance destroyed. Monsters and mayhem ensue.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Stiletto
Author: Daniel O’Malley (who I still assume is really Stephenie Meyer)
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2016)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.16/5)
The best feature of the book: Just in terms of writing it’s a big improvement on The Rook. It’s a quick, fast-paced read.
The worst feature of the book: I assumed the sequel would pick up Myfanwy Thomas’ story (or that there’s more to it than what we saw in The Rook), and while she features it’s in a supporting role. I still have questions about what happened to her and I’m annoyed that they’re either not being answered, or got bumped back a book. Also, maybe it’s because I’m Afrikaans and so have a reasonable grasp of Dutch, but some of the terms seem cheesy to me (for example: Gruwels. Horrors, really?)
Trigger warnings: Flesh cubes, impromptu surgery, the return of weirdly appealing Gestalt.
You’ll like this if… You like the supernatural genre in general.