Top Ten Books I Didn’t Choose for Myself

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. A present from the Resident Grammarian, this is high fantasy, which I really would not have picked out for myself, but its ragged emotional darkness kind of got me.
  2. Paradise Lost – John Milton. This was a university text. It’s fantastic, and surprisingly accessible for a seventeenth-century poetic epic.
  3. Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl. Another one picked by the Resident Grammarian, featuring a bookish and unreliable heroine. Just perfect.
  4. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. The Circumlocutor lent this to me. I love the way Mirlees manages to keep the atmosphere of Faerie alive throughout this strange little book, which is a rare achievement: too often the wonder of fairyland is punctured when you look too closely at its rules.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. A present from the Circumlocutor and a very clever look at the ways in which science and culture interact and clash.
  6. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. This was lent to me by a TolkSoc friend who thought I would like it, and I did. Hardinge creates this lush dystopian world in her underground city of Caverna, told in her whimsical, hypnotic prose.
  7. The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro. I actually won this in a giveaway, but I enter giveaways willy-nilly so I didn’t exactly choose for myself. Anyway, it’s a really interesting and heartfelt look at Arthurian mythology.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. I studied this at school: it’s gentle, sad, autumnal, and yet full of Austen’s savage, angry wit.
  9. A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab. This was a present from the Circumlocutor. I love the steampunk vibe to it, and the fact that it’s a bit different from most run-of-the-mill fantasy.
  10. Power of Three – Diana Wynne Jones. I just remember being really impressed by this tale when I read it for a Children’s Literature course at university. It starts as a vaguely Celtic story, of a little people living in mounds on the edge of a harsh moor, and widens its perspective until it becomes something quite different.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors So Far in 2016

“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Because this year has already been great reading-wise.

  1. Becky Chambers. I need the next Wayfarer book. NEED IT NOW.
  2. Kameron Hurley. I loved God’s War and disliked The Mirror Empire, but I do really enjoy what Hurley does with gender and sexuality and race, so I’m interested to read more of her work.
  3. Zen Cho. Again, Cho seems like an author to watch in terms of diverse representation; I want to keep an eye out for her short story collection Spirits Abroad.
  4. Helen Oyeyemi. I love the fairytale influences in her work, and her clever, knowing use of fantastic elements in a way that doesn’t patronise the genre.
  5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not an enormous fan of literary fiction, but Americanah gave me many, many feels, and was a really interesting book to inhabit for a week or so.
  6. Nnedi Okorafor. I liked Okorafor’s blend of fantastic and science fictional elements in Lagoon, and I’m trying to keep an eye out for her novella Binti as well as The Book of Phoenix.
  7. Kazuo Ishiguro. Another litfic author; The Buried Giant was right up my alley, an Arthurian work that resonates with Middle English epics. I’d like to try Never Let Me Go next.
  8. Ann Leckie. The Ancillary series can’t quite live up to the hype, but they are still properly solid SF novels, well characterised with fascinating politics.
  9. Brian K. Vaughan. I’ve got into graphic novels for the first time this year, and, with the exception of volume 3, Saga has been awesome. I know Vaughan has written a number of other graphic novel series, so they’re high on my list.
  10. Victoria Schwab. I thought A Darker Shade of Magic was a really original and fascinating fantasy with environmental undertones; now I just have to get round to reading the rest of the series!

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Buried Giant

“Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

Kazuo Ishiguro

This review contains spoilers.

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel (and by latest, I mean 2015) is refreshingly and unapologetically a Fantasy novel; by which I mean that the fantasy isn’t easily reducible to metaphor, as is the case with much magic realism and “literary” fantasy.

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it follows Axl and Beatrice, an old couple who set out on a long-delayed journey to visit their son in the next village. This is a greater undertaking than it sounds; for a mist of forgetting lies upon the land, causing mothers to forget children who went missing only a few hours ago, and entire villagers to forget members of their communities who have left. Axl and Beatrice are not, even, one hundred per cent sure that they have a son; they are not sure whether he is married, whether he has children, or even quite where he lives. All they have is a feeling.

Inevitably (for this is a Fantasy story) their quest for personal memory becomes slowly a quest for national memory: to find the source of the mist so that they can remember their lives together and so that others can remember their ties to each other. Along the way, they meet ogres and fiends and monsters and giants and dragons and knights and other strange and mildly disturbing characters.

So there are two obvious traditions on which Ishiguro seems to be drawing: the Arthurian tradition (Axl and Beatrice meet an aged Sir Gawain, with rusted armour and a clapped-out warhorse) and the Tolkienian one. And both of these traditions, of course, are exercises in collective memory: retelling the story of Arthur has always been a nationalistic enterprise, and Tolkien was explicitly trying to create an English mythology, constructed from bits and pieces of Old English and the Homeric legendarium.

My point being that it’s difficult not to read The Buried Giant as a text about mythmaking, about the process of creating collective memories.

It’s a tricky text to write about without reducing it; but it certainly seems to register an ambivalence about the value of memory. There’s a distinction being drawn here, I think, between personal memory and collective memory, which is rather neatly illustrated by one of the novel’s central paradoxes: although it’s written in an archaic, almost stilted, register, one which recalls Middle English Arthurian epics such as Layamon’s Brut and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, both of which are performative texts, texts concerned with public, political life, the core of the novel is a very modern preoccupation with interior lives – more explicitly, the interior lives of two poor, unimportant old people.

With that in mind: the book pulls us in two directions in a way that quite cleverly pulls apart our modern-day focus on individualism. Because we are twenty-first century readers, and because of the way the novel is focused, we care about Axl and Beatrice’s relationship (which is, by the way, gorgeously and hopefully written), we are rooting for them to remember their son and all the events of their lives; but the novel is also very clear that the return of memory to the country will mean war between the Britons and the Saxons who at the moment cohabit peacefully if uneasily. With the mist of forgetting created and upheld by Arthur and later Sir Gawain, the irony of the novel seems to be that the Golden Age of peace supposedly ushered in by King Arthur was in fact a Dark Age; only without Arthur can an Arthurian age be established.

And yet: it is better to remember than forget, and so we, and the characters of the novel, continue our mythmaking.

There’s certainly more to say about The Buried Giant, and I hope to say it; but for now: it is a lovely, powerful book, and I hope you read it.

Top Ten Books for Tolkien-Lovers

“The Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Willy Wisp, speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning!”

Hope Mirlees

Now, obviously, there are a lot of terrible Tolkien ripoffs out there. So I’m going to try and stay away from the murky realms of Epic Fantasy (which I don’t much enjoy anyway) and concentrate on the less obvious aspects of Tolkien’s works which you might conceivably want to replicate in your reading experience. (Was that last sentence pretentious enough?)

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. “Didn’t you just say you were going to stay away from Epic Fantasy?” Well, yes. But the Covenant series deserves a mention for its existential take on Tolkien, questioning as it does the “reality” of its Middle-earth analogue. A warning, though: Donaldson doesn’t shy away from gore and sexual violence.
  2. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist, a novel from the 1920s which has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, reminds me very much of The Hobbit, both in its slightly facetious narrative voice and in its gentle, ineffable atmosphere of mystery and magic just over the hills.
  3. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett. It’s absolutely possible to love something and yet to weary of it, and Pratchett’s Discworld series is excellent at deflating the seriousness of Tolkien’s themes without hating on Epic Fantasy or degrading it (yes, Bored of the Rings, I am looking at you). An excellent follow-up to a Tolkien Marathon.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Something I often forget about The Lord of the Rings is just how good it is at creating place. Tolkien knows every step and stone of his secondary world, and while Peake’s work doesn’t have quite that sense of verisimilitude (I doubt if Gormenghast could ever be mapped even by its inhabitants) it does reproduce that overwhelming atmosphere, that setting-as-character, that to me really characterises the Dead Marshes and Minas Morgul and the Shire.
  5. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. There is nothing quite like stumbling across the phrase “middle-erth” in a text six hundred years old for generating fangirling. Fans of Tolkien’s archaic, expressive diction will enjoy this – although it might take a while.
  6. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. This is for those who love that grandiose Tolkienian feeling of vast spaces just over the edge of sight, of destinations untold leagues away, of unimaginable sentiences in the dark places of the earth. And for those who love endless, hopeless quests.
  7. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. This is really a cultural/historical response to Tolkien, I suppose: Lovecraft was writing roughly at the same time as Tolkien was, and his work seems as Tolkien’s does to speak to the upheavals in the Western psyche that followed the First World War. As China Mieville put it on Crooked Timber: “Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.”
  8. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. Speaking of China Mieville. Perdido Street Station is a novel for those who really want to get their teeth into something with that same richly-imagined sense of place and culture; again, that verisimilitude, that all-encompassing and almost hypnotic reading experience.
  9. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Another recommendation I’m basing on verisimilitude: Novik is excellent at delineating the social rules of the culture she creates, and adding some fantasy (dragons!) to destabilise it all. (Not that this is really the purpose of Tolkien’s fantasy; but it’s still fun.)
  10. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. Tolkien was never shy about the fact that he was essentially trying to create the mythology he felt Britain had lost; Clarke’s project in some ways feels quite similar with her brand of very English magic. In the works of neither author is magic to be underestimated or easily dismissed as rational, understandable: in both, deep magic lies in every stone of England.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Classics You Should Read…

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

T.S. Eliot

…if you’d like to get a general flavour of English Literature Through Time (my opinions only). So, chronological order!

  1. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory (pub. 1485). There’s stuff before this that’s pretty great, but this is probably around the earliest thing you can read without having to learn Middle English. Read for the chivalric romances, which are fairly typical of literature of the time, for the French colouring (lots of French people around in the 1400s), and, of course, for the tricksy, slippery set of stories that is the myth of King Arthur.
  2. The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser (first pub. 1590). Or some of it, anyway – it’s approximately a bazillion pages long and quite hard going. Read for the complex allegory and religious overtones, both very common in this period, and Spenser’s rather delightfully old-fashioned verse. Oh, and Arthur crops up again.
  3. The Shoemakers’ Holiday – Thomas Dekker (first performed 1599). I’m skating over Shakespeare here because it’s too difficult to pick one of his plays, but Dekker’s anarchic rough-around-the-edges drama of city life is a half-decent substitute. Read (or watch) for its evocation of the troubling democracy of the city and its deft defanging of that democracy.
  4. Paradise Lost – John Milton (pub. 1667). Pretty much the exact opposite of Spenser’s work – Milton’s verse is as clear and ringing as a bell, and his dramatic religious conflict isn’t obfuscated by clinging allegory. It’s very accessible to a modern reader (I recommend the Longman edition if you can get it – the spelling is modernised throughout and the font is very readable). Read for the Biblical overtones, and because its story covers pretty much every concern seventeenth-century poets had, and because it’s generally awesome.
  5. Pamela – Samuel Richardson (1740). I actually intensely dislike Pamela. But it’s really where the modern novel begins: a deeply psychological tale emphasising felt experience over empirical truth. Read for its heavy moral overtones and its revolutionary placing of importance on the honour of servant girls.
  6. Evelina – Fanny Burney (1778). Burney isn’t as good a writer as her contemporary Jane Austen, but Evelina is nevertheless a funny and rather enjoyable example of the mannered romances of the period. Read for its broad social satire, its rather emotionally overwrought scenes of familial reunion, and for its close focus on the trials and tribulations of female experience.
  7. In Memoriam A.H.H – Alfred Tennyson (1849). A long and elegiac poem about a dead friend of the poet’s. Read for its Romantic focus on the processes of grief and the tension between its individual lyrics and the narrative whole.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens (1865). Serially published, Our Mutual Friend is an enormous, baggy, sprawling book, a state-of-the-nation novel, Victorianly sentimental with a core of bitter anger. Read for its wide cast of characters and its social commentary.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (1899). An atmospheric and deeply chilling novella about a journey into the depths of Africa. Read it for its almost Impressionist descriptive style, its thoughts on story and narrative and its stirrings of post-colonialism.
  10. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot (pub. 1922). Possibly the seminal poem of the 20th century. Read for its string of abstract fragments, its tapestry-work of old stories and its magnificently apocalyptic overtones.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Song of Susannah

“There is no love in thought, nothing that lasts in deduction, only death in rationalism.”

Stephen King

Song of Susannah

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Song of Susannah is the sixth book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and it’s also the shortest since…actually, potentially since The Gunslinger, the very first book. It sees Susannah, possessed by the sinister Mia (mother of one, daughter of none), leaving Mid-World for New York, there to have her demonic and mysterious baby.

I rated Susannah very highly the first time I read it, mostly, I think, because it was rather a relief to read such a short book on the heels of the bloated Wolves of the Calla, not to mention Wizard and Glass. But it doesn’t stand up nearly so well to a re-read, partly because the conflicts upon which King builds his world haven’t actually developed at all from The Waste Lands, and partly because he makes some very dodgy storytelling choices.

But I’m feeling generous today, so let’s start with the good, shall we? Because there are good things about Song of Susannah, never think otherwise. I very much enjoyed the relationship between the story’s core characters, Susannah and Mia: their carefully negotiated dance of alliance and betrayal and help and hindrance is nicely orchestrated and ultimately rather sad. I can’t help thinking there’s a feminist message in all of this, as both are manoeuvred, manipulated, forced to turn against each other, by the forces of the male Crimson King, who is Evil. (This is all you need to know about the Crimson King; he never becomes anything more than a cipher.) Which would at least make some sense in King’s multiverse, as the King is a servant of Discordia, the force opposed to everything that is shiny and nice, a category which definitely includes civil rights (and something is made in the novel of Susannah’s past in the civil rights movement of the sixties) and presumably includes feminism. Discordia and the Crimson King, we’re led to believe, are opposed to progress, at least in the humanitarian sense.

But this is where it all falls down. Because it turns out (this is very much a book where things Turn Out, more or less hand-wavily) that the march of Discordia, the rooms of ruin, the falling of the Tower, are all to do with the fact that magic has been replaced by technology:

The magic went away. Maerlyn retired to his cave in one world, the sword of Eld gave way to the pistols of the gunslingers in another, and the magic went away. And across the arc of years, great alchemists, great scientists, and great – what? – technicians, I think? Great men of thought, anyway, that’s what I mean, great men of deduction – these came together and created the machines which ran the Beams. They were great machines but they were mortal machines. They replaced the magic with machines, do ya kennit, and now the machines are failing…Soon enough the Dark Tower will fall. Perhaps there’ll be time for one splendid moment of universal rational thought before the darkness rules forever. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So…progress is bad now?

Of course, this pleasant little passage (and I just want to remark here that, however irritating the ideology, Susannah does contain some of the most visionary and most haunting writing of the series) is picking up on the motif of alienation that King’s been riffing on since The Waste Lands. Machines, it’s implied, distance us from the way the world works; they make inferior copies of nature, they make us forget what human is, what natural is. Fine; this is core SF stuff, potentially interesting if handled in the right way. But giving it a why, and a fantastical one at that, is a huge mistake, because the whole point about the kind of alienation King describes in The Waste Lands, the alienation that comes, ultimately, from that book’s namesake, T.S. Eliot’s hauntingly and dangerously beautiful poem The Waste Land, is that there is no why. There is no narrative that allows us to join up all the dots; there is no connection to the past, because there are no connections anywhere. That is what alienation means. Connecting us back to that past, giving us a reason for our alienation, however horrible the reason is, effectively un-alienates us and undoes all that strange, fantastic worldbuilding King’s been doing for five books.

Annoying as it is, none of this stuff actually affects enjoyment of Susannah; it’s stuff that occurs to you when you’ve finished it, when you’re thinking about the series of the whole. The one thing that actually made me want to throw the book at the wall – not a thing that happens as often as you’d think – was King’s insertion of himself into the story. This is a bad idea at the best of times. Here, however, there are whole passages in which King the Writer describes King the Character as a god, the key to all the worlds, the saviour of the Tower – I mean, how self-important can you get? No one, after all, remembers the singer. It’s the song that remains, and that’s how it should be.

Susannah may be the nail in the coffin of the strange and wonderful world we get in the first three books in the series. It’s not, in itself, a bad book, and it’s certainly better than Wolves; but it is the book which turns the Dark Tower series, finally, from a potent, apocalyptic, profoundly unsettling view of a world not quite ours but not quite not into just another fantasy series, easily tidied away into the box labelled “Quests”.

O, Discordia!

Top Ten Deeply Irritating Male Characters

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”

Homer

Because why should women get all the attention? #equality

  1. Mr B. – Pamela, Samuel Richardson. Mr B. needs the meaning of “consent” explained to him slowly and carefully. About a hundred times. And even then he might not get it.

  2. Dodger – Dodger, Terry Pratchett. Dodger is the archetypal Chippy Victorian Rogue with a Heart of Gold. His motivations are wildly inconsistent, his character is as shallow as the cliché, and he is not funny.

  3. Odysseus – The Odyssey, Homer. I’ve never understood why Odysseus is considered such a hero. He’s clever, maybe, but he’s also a bit of a weasel, abandoning his men to save his own life, keeping secrets from his crew, and generally making idiotic decisions. Maybe this is a culture clash – Homer was, after all, writing over a thousand years ago – but we really shouldn’t be looking to Nobody for his heroism.

  4. Mordred – The Dark Tower, Stephen King. He kills Oy. There is no forgiveness for that.

  5. Frito – Bored of the Rings, The Harvard Lampoon. I really despise this Tolkien parody: it’s tone-deaf and annoying and exists only to make fun of the original. All the characters are selfish and cowardly and ridiculous and ugh. Maybe I’m just humourless and dull.

  6. Stephen Dedalus – Ulysses, James Joyce. Please, shut up with your pretentious literary musings. They are dull and solipsistic and unimportant.

  7. Master Blifil – Tom Jones, Henry Fielding. He is hypocritical, condescending, self-serving and generally a horrible, petty human being. And I just want to punch him.

  8. Tristram Shandy – Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne. Another solipsistic muser on Life, the Universe and Everything and just why. These characters are so self-important.

  9. Feanor – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet another self-involved creator, one who literally can’t stand seeing his magnum opus in anyone else’s hands – even if getting it back means waging war against his own family. Feanor is directly responsible for at least 50% of the nasty stuff that happens in Middle-earth right into the Third Age.

  10. Prince Humperdinck – The Princess Bride, William Golding. Just nasty – jealous and petty and sadistic and cruel. Ugh.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Wolves of the Calla

The joke is that, out here a billion miles from nowhere, we come upon a storybook town.”

Stephen King

the-wolves-of-the-callaI’m re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to coincide with the Book Smugglers Old School Wednesdays readalong, and it’s the turn of Wolves of the Calla, number five of seven, to come under the wrathful eye of The English Student.

Why wrathful? you may ask.

Wrathful because Wolves of the Calla is, frankly, a bloated monster that drags King’s strange, disjointed vision into increasingly irrelevant nonsense.

As Roland and his new ka-tet (ones chosen by destiny) continue along the Path of the Beam on their search for the Tower, they come across a farming community, Calla Bryn Sturgis, under threat from the Wolves who come from End-World. Most of the children of the Calla are twins, with singletons a rare blessing; when the Wolves visit the Calla, once a generation, they take children, one twin from each set, and send them back weeks later mentally handicapped and huge. Roland and the gang agree to help them, for reasons which feel fudged and hand-wavy: “Because they are Good Guys!” Yeah? Tell that to the people of Lud, why don’t you.

To be fair, the main problem with Wolves isn’t actually the hand-waving; it’s King’s overwhelming urge to explain everything, to make everything fit together nicely. The novel is sprinkled, as The Waste Lands was, with fragments of popular culture that have ended up in Mid-World: the snitches from Harry Potter, Doctor Doom from Marvel Comics, Star Wars’ C-3PO. In the earlier novel, these bits and pieces of modernity, strange and abandoned, created a kind of shattered mirror-world, a statement about the alienation and fragmentation of modern life, haunting and almost Gothic. Here, though, King tries to amalgamate this mirror-world with an old-fashioned Western story which has the idea of community firmly lodged at its heart. It doesn’t work; instead of the strangeness and dislocation King was going for, we get a much more mechanical kind of mystery, a series of cute coincidences that, depending on your mood, range from mildly cool in a nerdy, trainspotting kind of way to deeply irritating. The same goes for the motif of nineteen and for the deeply flawed piece of self-aggrandizement that sees King actually inserting himself into his own novel: the story in which these things are rooted, the story the novel tells, is at its core much too traditional to allow them to be any more than bolted-on bits of cleverness. (The fact that I know the nineteen thing never gets resolved only adds to my annoyance at it. It’s purposeless, both functionally and aesthetically.)

Not only is Wolves conceptually flawed, it’s also far, far too long. Our Heroes don’t reach the Calla until well over the 200-page mark; the book until this point consists mainly of conversations and bad dreams. Nor does Wolves have any kind of narrative drive or tension until the last twenty pages: the ka-tet chat to the townsfolk, plan, listen to a long story told by Donald Callahan from ‘Salem’s Lot (interesting but not really necessary), visit New York a couple of times through a convenient magic door and generally faff around. It’s barely enough to sustain a chapter, let alone a whole novel. At least 50% of all this could be cut without materially affecting the story or the character development.

And, talking of character development, I just want to register how annoyed I am by the novel’s treatment of Susannah, who, it turns out, is pregnant with the child of the demon she distracted while the others were rescuing Jake. This is obviously Bad News (because demon), but not only is Roland’s method of handling it objectively terrible (let’s not tell her at all! This is the Best Plan Ever), the way the narrative frames her is awful. There’s this moment when Roland remarks to Eddie – her actual husband – that Susannah’s breasts and hips are “a trifle fuller” and it’s like they’re sharing in this squicky moment of objectification which treats the woman herself as just a body. The mother is othered, literally in this case, because her child isn’t human. And, effectively, it’s the male members of the ka-tet who are deciding what happens to Susannah’s own body. Why did you do this, Stephen. Why.

Re-reading this was more of a chore than a pleasure, which is a shame, when the first three books of the series are among my favourite pieces of fantasy ever. As I remember, the next book, Song of Susannah, tightens up considerably – it’ll be interesting to see how that goes next month.

Wizard and Glass

“All these years later, it seem to him that the most horrible fact of human existence was that broken hearts mended.”

Stephen King

Wizard and Glass, the fourth in Stephen King’s epic fantasy Western Dark Tower series, is a great example of how books can change on you.

As our ka-tet heads further into Mid-World on the Path of the Beam, Roland tells them a story. It’s a story of his past: at the age of fourteen, a newly-fledged gunslinger, the world of order and stability around him beginning to fall to the forces of the Good Man John Farson, his father sends him away for safety to the out-of-the-way Barony of Mejis, on the Clean Sea. Things there aren’t as quiet as they seem, however: someone’s keeping secrets, secrets with implications for all of Mid-World. And if that wasn’t enough, Roland meets a girl called Susan Delgado, who is unironically the Most Beautiful Girl Ever, and also unironically his One and Fated True Love. (It occurs to me that King only gets away with this ka spiel – which would read as eyerollingly cliched anywhere else – because he’s established this idea of ka being ineffable and also much more complex earlier in the series. Whereas ka here is literally just a stand-in for Fate, as in, “Fate has flung us together! Woe is me!”)

The first time I read Wizard and Glass, I actually found it tedious, mainly because I was waiting for the whole book to get back to The Amazing Adventures of Lost and Fabled Kansas and our ka-tet, and did not have the slightest interest in reading a 600-page Western about two self-obsessed teenagers.

This time around, though, I knew what was coming, which made the reading experience both better and worse. Better, because I wasn’t constantly hoping to reach the end of the Mejis section. Worse because, well, I knew what was coming. It’s not much of a spoiler given the way the story’s introduced and the general tenor of the series to say that Things Do Not End Well. And Wizard and Glass is, frankly, brutal: building up a sentimental but admittedly very compelling romantic dream only for reality to intervene and tear it down. It narrates a world in which no-one is quite good and no-one (well, almost no-one) is quite bad; in which the structures of law and order are slowly winding down for reasons no-one exactly comprehends, and in which madness is growing with each passing month. In a word, it is nightmarish. Its slow advancement on total disintegration – the horror of the harvest, come, Reap – is masterly.

The story is admittedly an old one, and I don’t think King does anything particularly interesting with it. Bouncing back into the frame narration at the end of the book, too, proves a little disappointing, as the ka-tet, ridiculously, find themselves facing a malign version of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz in a remarkably anticlimactic scene which sees them confront the supposed villain of the piece, Randall Flagg. But Susan and Roland’s story did grip me unexpectedly, and the mundane horrors of Mejis – an abandoned oilfield, a girl trapped in a contract she regrets, a vengeful and bitter township uncertain of its future – are chilling in their own way. And Eddie’s riddle-battle with Blaine remains one of the most exciting sequences I’ve read.

It’s funny how books can shift. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Wizard and Glass this time around as much as I did. Looking back, I can see that it’s a bloated, cliche-ridden, emotionally manipulative thing – but it kept me coming back.

That’s all.

That’s enough.

The Waste Lands

“We are ka-tet – one from many. Let the palaver begin.”

Stephen King

So Ana over at The Book Smugglers is doing a re-read of Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower, and, since I am an unreformed fangirl of said series, I’m joining in. Unfortunately, The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three are currently sojourning at the Book Repository, where I can’t get access to them, so I’m starting with the third in the series, The Waste Lands, which I’ve long considered my favourite.

Roland, the last gunslinger, continues his quest for the lost and fabled Dark Tower, at the nexus of all worlds, along with his ka-tet, a group of characters drawn from the New York of our world: Susannah, a disabled black woman haunted by her baleful alter ego Detta Walker; Eddie, ex-heroin addict and Susannah’s lover; Jake, an eleven-year-old who’s died twice; and Oy, a billy-bumbler (a cross between a squirrel and a racoon) who talks. Their journey leads them across the plains of the ancient and forgotten kingdom of Mid-World, as they advance upon the glittering, rotting city of Lud whose towers rise above the skyline.

So I think I’ve worked out exactly why The Waste Lands is my favourite of all the books in this series. It’s here, in this third part, that the sense of what King calls “magnificent dislocation” reaches its apogee. It’s here that the strange familiarity of this world really sets in; where the dregs and shards of a thousand worlds fall together and almost seem to join up. Almost, but not quite; that almost is vital to the success of the book. The Waste Lands is the last book in the series where King can keep tantalising us, keep teasing answers which never come; the last book before he has to start coming up with reasons, which can only ever fall into the region of the mundane.

The Waste Lands, accordingly, taking its cue from the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name, is absolutely full of fragments of meaning which never quite add up. We have a giant mechanical bear named Shardik made by North Central Positronics, a Z.Z. Top song being broadcast in the depths of an abandoned city populated by Luddites who’ve forgotten that technology should serve them rather than the other way about, a downed Focke-Wulf aeroplane flown by a giant of a man, a riddling contest taken straight from The Hobbit. Hell, we even have the Cracks of Doom making an appearance:

Susannah, who had read her Tolkien, thought: This is what Frodo and Sam saw when they reached the heart of Mordor. These are the Cracks of Doom.

King, it’s quite clear from a somewhat pontificating, 7 page long Preface (not to mention a couple more pages of Argument), is essentially writing – or trying to write – a sort of Modernist Lord of the Rings, with plenty of sex and death thrown in for good measure. It’s significant, after all, that Our Villain is a schizophrenic computer inhabiting a monorail train instead of a small grey ex-hobbit with teeth (because technology is SCARY and attests to the fragmented condition of modern man. Or something) and that Roland’s ka-tet effectually puts paid to a number of relics of the old world as it makes its destructive way through Mid-World. The landscape they pass through is a waste land of meaningless fragments of a defunct world. This is probably supposed to be a comment on modern life. If so, it’s a pretty hopeless one.

Having said that, The Waste Lands is also a book full of very human moments. For the first time in the series, Our Hero Roland is having to interact with other people on a daily basis. In other words, he’s making friends again. He’s becoming, again, an upholder of the old days even as those days pass irrevocably: “This is the way he was…before the world moved on and he moved on with it,” thinks Susannah as they enter a run-down old village where they meet their first non-ka-tet humans for long and long, humans who greet the gunslinger as a sort of god, declaring that the good days have come again. Nothing materially has changed; just a handful of nice strangers passing through the town. But that interaction is a moment of hope for the people of River Crossing, a real and meaningful piece of social interaction standing against the decaying technologies, the malicious magics, left behind by the dead and vanished Great Old Ones.

So, yeah. The Waste Lands is a good book. Not perfect: King’s prose is best described as functional, and occasionally drops into the clumsy. I’m not sure I reacted as viscerally to it as I did the first time around, either; those highs and lows of emotion rarely stand up well to re-reading. But that sense of dislocation, that aching and unassuaged sadness for the relics of a forgotten world that looks so much like ours, is still present, and in spades. It’s an ambitious project, this one, but it rewards that ambition. Fantasy readers: this is the series you are looking for. At least until book 3.

Oh, and also? Oy the billy-bumbler may be the cutest fictional animal ever written. Just sayin’.