Released recently: Bev Vincent's book The Dark Tower Companion, which is described on the front cover as "a guide to Stephen King's epic fantasy." This is not Vincent's first foray into writing about The Dark Tower; his exploration The Road to the Dark Tower came out in 2004, and is generally considered to be the most notable nonfiction work about King's magnum opus thus far.
The Dark Tower Companion cements Vincent's status as one of the preeminent King scholars working, and the preeminent Dark Tower scholar. It's good stuff, and if you're a fan of the series, you really ought to add this to your collection.
That's the short review.
If you feel like reading a slightly longer review, one that'll give you a taste of the actual contents of the book, then step right this way; I can accommodate you.
If you've read the series before (and if you haven't, why in Gan's name would you be reading a companion book about it?), the plot summaries may or may not be of interest to you. If they are not, then you might justifiably be annoyed that a decent-sized chunk of the book you just bought is taken up by them. However, Vincent does a very good job of writing the summaries, and I can easily imagine myself sitting around one day and picking this book up as a quick way of refreshing my memory of the events. It's an entertaining way to do so.
By the way, here is the order in which Vincent covers the tales:
- The Little Sisters of Eluria
- The Gunslinger
- The Drawing of the Three
- The Waste Lands
- Wizard and Glass
- The Wind Through the Keyhole
- Wolves of the Calla
- Song of Susannah
- The Dark Tower
A bit of commentary on this perhaps needs to be made. First of all, I approve of placing The Wind Through the Keyhole there. When, in the future, I sit down to read the entire series, that's how I'm going to read it; it's where King says it ought to be read, and it fits in there perfectly.
I take issue with placing "The Little Sisters of Eluria" at the front, however. In my opinion, that's a bad move; it's a bad move, Ripley. And I'll tell you why.
First of all, I get the placement. In terms of the chronology, "The Little Sisters of Eluria" takes place prior to The Gunslinger. However, there is simply no way that someone reading the series should read this prior to reading The Gunslinger. Vincent states several time that The Gunslinger is a "difficult" book, and while I'm aware that this is an opinion shared by many readers, it's an opinion I do not share, and do not understand. If you actually think The Gunslinger is a difficult novel, then what that tells me is that you've never actually read a difficult novel; go work your way through To the Lighthouse, or Absalom, Absalom, or Finnegan's Wake. Get back to me once you've finished -- or, more likely, given up (like I did) -- and tell me how difficult The Gunslinger supposedly is.
It's a ludicrous opinion, and it kinda disappoints me that Vincent panders to that element of Towerphiles here. It's his book, so he's welcome to do it; just as I'm welcome to be a little bummed out to see that silliness apologized for here.
In any case, the reason you shouldn't start with "The Little Sisters of Eluria" is simple: it doesn't fit there. The Roland we meet in The Gunslinger is the gunslinger as King first envisioned him, and it is THAT version of the character around whom the entire series revolves; his decisions in that novel are what prompt the events which occur in the final moments of Book VII of the series. Without that version of the character coming first, the circle formed by Book VII loses its shape. You'd be doing yourself a major disservice in allowing that to happen to you, dear reader; so don't do it.
My assessment is that the only natural place to read it is between Wizard and Glass and The Wind Through the Keyhole (or, if you're insistent on following publication order, between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla). Failing that, hold onto it and read it after you've finished the rest of the series. But I think it works reasonably well following upon the heels of Wizard and Glass, because the Roland we meet there is a sort of intermediary step between the young Roland as seen in the flashback scenes of Wizard and Glass) and the older Roland of The Gunslinger. One way to look at Wizard and Glass is as a radical redefinition of Roland as a character; we come to find that what looked like a piece of rope is in fact a length of bungee cord, one which Wizard and Glass stretches and stretches, giving us insight into just how much more there was to him than we might have suspected.
Certainly, that is the effect Roland's story has upon his tet-mates, and even upon himself; both "The Little Sisters of Eluria" and The Wind Through the Keyhole find Roland at a place during which that cord is still stretched to its capacity, whereas Wolves of the Calla presents Roland after the bungee cord (as it were) has been allowed to relax back into something resembling its natural condition; it is changed, and perhaps in a way that doesn't seem quite right if you aren't aware that all the stretching has taken place. I think the transition between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla works just fine; but I think it works even better with "The Little Sisters of Eluria" and The Wind Through the Keyhole there to smooth things out a bit.
Others will disagree, and if their argument is that that placement delays the forward momentum of the story too much, I can see how they came to that conclusion; I'd counter by saying that it is the journey that matters, not the endpoint, but I'd understand their concerns.
In no way, however, would I support the motion of starting the series with "The Little Sisters of Eluria." You might as well try to convince me to start with the comics. Hell no.
After the sections dealing with the series itself, there's a dozen or so pages about other books by King which are related to the series. Hardcore King fans will be familiar with most or all of these (Insomnia, Black House, Hearts In Atlantis, etc.), but Towerphiles who are not devoted King readers will probably find this section to be fascinating. They might even decide to pick up a few of the books mentioned and give them a whirl.
After that, we come to what is probably, for me, the best section of the book: a six-page interview with King himself, never-before-published and chock full of questions that I've never seen addressed elsewhere.
There is some fascinating stuff in here, especially if -- like me -- you've been wondering exactly how you should view the comics. My inclination is write a piece that addresses the various revelations contained in this interview, but I don't think that would be entirely fair to Bev Vincent; it's a bit too soon. So I've earmarked that idea for later exploration, hopefully sometime before 2014...but no promises.
Rather than remark at length upon the answers, thereby giving you less reason to buy the book, it seems fair to maybe just mention a few of the more tantalizing questions Vincent asks. Those include:
- To what extent are you involved with the Marvel graphic novel adaptations of the Dark Tower series?
- Do you still plan to go back and revise the other books to bring them all into line?
- Do you have an idea of what changes Roland needs to make to redeem himself?
- When I was working on The Road to the Dark Tower, you mentioned in passing that Roland had a brother and a sister. Would you like to elaborate on that?
And now, shocked faces:
I KNOW! I couldn't believe it either!
Well, to get the answers to those questions, you'll just have to get the book. However, I promise, we'll be returning to each of those topics, among others; I'm just going to give it some room to breathe.
The next 130-odd pages focus on the Dark Tower mythos outside of the the books King has written: the online game Discordia, the planned/hoped-for/possibly-doomed movie/tv-hybrid adaptation from director Ron Howard, and (most notably) the Marvel Comics series.
Regarding the planned movies, Vincent interviews both Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, both of whom have very interesting things to say about their plans. They aren't terribly specific in some of their answers, but don't let that discourage you; if you've been following the idea of the movies, these are must-read interviews.
The better part of sixty pages is spent on recapping the plots of each individual issue of the comics, as well as summarizing some of the appendix-like bonus content which filled out those issues. Following that: forty pages worth of interviews with key contributors to the comics, including Robin Furth, Peter David, Jae Lee, and Richard Isanove.
That's a solid hundred pages devoted to the comics, and it is here that the book probably will lose some readers. There are plenty of folks who simply do not read comic books, under any circumstances, and I suspect that a great many King readers and Towerphiles fall into that category. Some of them may not even be aware that the Marvel comics exist. There will be some readers who are intrigued by all of this, and perhaps decide to seek the first volume out; there will be others who simply skip this entire section of Vincent's book.
As for myself, I am a semi-devoted comics fan; I buy probably a dozen series on a monthly basis, which is not enough for me to be an expert, but enough to qualify me as being way more than a layman. I've purchased each and every issue of the Marvel Dark Tower series, and while I've only enjoyed them maybe about half of the time, they've formed an ongoing part of my life for the last six years or so. As such, I was thrilled to see Vincent interview some of the key contributors. I was especially fascinated to learn more about the process the artists went through; turns out, my assumptions about some of them were dead wrong.
So, yeah; those hundred pages were like catnip to me. Others will be less enchanted. But then again, some people apparently think The Gunslinger is a difficult novel, so mileage may vary.
Roughly the last half of the book is devoted to timelines, geography, and other glossary-type material. I did not spend any time with those sections; however, I suspect that in the future, I will have many occasions to use them as reference guides, and so they are welcome.
And that's my review. Odds are, it's given you a decent idea of whether it's to your liking or not. Personally, I think it's worth having if only for the interview with King; but there's plenty more gravy on top of that piece of country-fried steak, and I would think that all but the most casual of Dark Tower fans would find something to enjoy here.
Go buy a copy, won't you?