Tolkien Gestures Book 10: The Gunslinger

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we go from high, to low, and swords and sorcery, to Guns and Grit.

So, a few firsts here. This is the first novel in this reading project written during my lifetime, it’s the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever read, and it’s the first fully “part one” that I’ve come across in the sense that it feels incomplete and a clear lead in to something more. But more on that later.

So, The Gunslinger is the first book in Stephen King’s vast and epic – both in scope and the length of time he took to write the damn thing, apparently – Dark Tower series, of which I know very little. The first chapter, to be honest, was a bit of a slog due to an overly twitchy writing style; everything has to be described with similie and metaphor and it’s all be heavy, a bit “my first novel” and I don’t know if it’s King’s style generally or just when Gunslinger was written. It certainly boded ill and by the end I was half way to shouting “Look! Not everything has to be like something else, dammit!” at the page.

That said, it settled down once it stops trying to set scenes and things start to happen. And the scene-setting overwriting is unnecessary, because Gunslinger, as its title suggests, is a western as much as a fantasy novel and if you’ve ever seen a spaghetti western ever it needs little description. The houses, the frontier towns, the people, they leap into the mind’s eye with little prompting and the gritty, sinister magic that leaks in and out of the story complements it wonderfully.

Structurally the story follows its eponymous protagonist in his lonely pursuit of his nameless quarry, flashing back to key events in his life, including a very Pale Rider showdown in a frontier town and a more traditional fantasy growing up story from his distant youth. More confusingly he also picks up a kid who appears to have died being hit by a car in New York, which I suspect as being more relevant and less arbitrary as the world is expanded in future books. Its core story fits well into the whole Western vibe; one man trailing another through the dusty and trackless wastes to an ambiguous and troubling showdown. It’s simple, but effective, and makes the story one of the nature of the lead character, rather than anything external.

Ultimately however, Gunslinger is a prologue to a bigger story and feels it once you start to think outside the events within. Its keen focus serves it well, there’s little of the touristy, “look-at-my-world” feel that I’ve come across in a fair bit of fantasy so far (and in fairness, it’s endemic in SF too), and it paints a fragmentary but fascinating picture of a broken world that may be part of something much larger.

I liked it. I will almost certainly read more, but first…

Next up – 1000 pages of neo-pagan feminist tract. Ooooh fun. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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