Friday, December 22, 2006

Review: Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower V), by Stephen King

7/10, an adventure story that's more about the action and world-building than about the characters

Going from Kazuo Ishiguro to Stephen King is rather like getting up from Le Petit Bistro (a fine French restaurant in Mountain View) and going next door to the El Paso Cafe (a fine Tex-Mex taqueria). No offense is meant either to King or to the El Paso Cafe, both of whom produce fine quality fare of which I am a big fan. It's just not the kind of fare that feels like an experience. They are also aimed at such different markets as to make the comparisons nearly meaningless unless you're just trying to open a Stephen King review with an amusing comparison that hasn't been done before.

The Dark Tower series is King's most ambitious work, a seven-volume epic chronicling the quest of Roland of Gilead to find and save the Dark Tower, the hub at the center of all the worlds that holds them together. Book 1, though I didn't particularly like the style, was inventive and concerned primarily with Roland. In Book 2 (or II, I suppose), Roland acquires two companions, Susannah and Eddie, from various times in New York. Book III follows their travels to and from the city of Lud, while book IV is mostly taken up with Roland's tale of his childhood first love, a story that, while interesting, seems not too relevant to the quest. In book V, the quest is again sidetracked by our heroes' encounter with a small town periodically raided by sinister Wolves, who take one of each set of identical twins. That doesn't sound particularly harmful or sinister until you learn that the proportions of twins to single births that we are familiar with is reversed in this community, for reasons never explained. Everyone has twins; singletons are rare and prized, because they are safe from the Wolves.

It's an interesting setup, unfortunately used more for effect than for any real social exploration. The main theme returned to again and again is that some in the town don't want to fight the Wolves. After all, they only come every twenty-some years (in this farming community, there are no reliable calendars), and they leave half the children. That's better than taking them all, right? Well, by use of clever analogies to orchards and displays of fighting prowess, Roland's group convinces the townspeople to stay and fight. Meanwhile, in New York, there's another sort of battle going on, more relevant to the quest itself. In addition to which, each member of Roland's group has some secret he or she is struggling with, resolved to various degrees over the course of the nine hundred page long book.

The central character in this book, and the series, is Roland. His dour determination to finish his quest at any cost, built up over the thousands of years he's been alive (calendar years, one assumes, not human-lived years, due to time-slips) is his defining trait. At one point, when asked to make a special effort to spare some individual life, Roland replies that he seeks to save the Tower, which will save all life in all universes everywhere, and that one person can't be weighed above that. Now that's perspective. He's mellowed somewhat since the first book, though, and at least experiences some measure of regret that he has to be so determined, and that he has to force the same determination onto his companions.

Roland and his group are the best-drawn characters, though we spend a good many chapters reliving the tale of Don Callahan (more on him later). Still, we don't get the sense of progression from them very much. Although there is relatively little action in this book, it is very much an action-adventure story. The three main stories (the Wolves, the New York drama, Susannah's secret) would seem to have little to do with each other, but then, there are two more books to go, and perhaps King intends to weave them all together. As an action-adventure book, it's maybe not a "ripping yarn"--too many digressions, side stories, ponderous moments, and a strange romantic subplot--but it is a page-turner, if only because King's worlds are so inventive that I just love seeing what he's come up with. Whether it's Calla Bryn Sturgis, 1977-era New York, or a strangely shifted early 80s American collage, he has (as always) a terrific feel for detail, how to paint a picture, how to give you just a few details that are exactly the right degree "off" to make you feel creepy, and how to place his characters within the world perfectly.

He's pretty good with his characters, too. Just because they don't grow doesn't mean they aren't interesting to follow. Roland could easily become boring because of his extreme confidence and competence, but he is open to mistakes. The others have adapted pretty well to their new life, but still raise echoes of the old. And the action and suspense, of course, are very well done. That's King's bread and butter, and even if the pacing suffers from the scope of what he's trying to do, it works anyway. Even the digressions are fun to read.

The part of this book that started to annoy me was King placing his work inside it. To rescue Don Callahan from "'Salem's Lot" and place him in the Calla, fine. I liked his story and the torment he was going through. But in a couple places in New York, King has inserted his own books, and eventually a copy of "'Salem's Lot" turns up, leading the characters to the inevitable and trite "what if we're all just characters in a story" theme. Again, with two books left to go, perhaps King has some new take on it, but it seems to be a completely unnecessary twist to a story already complicated enough that it doesn't need more twists. Besides, it's been done, and better.

In all likelihood, of course, this review is meaningless. If you're a King fan, as I am, you'll read the book regardless of the flaws. All you need to hear is "it's better than "The Tommyknockers"." If you're not a King fan, you're certainly not going to start with a seven-book epic. And if you've enjoyed the Dark Tower series so far, you'd read book V even if I said it was worse than "The Tommyknockers." But it isn't. It's a Super Burrito from El Paso Cafe: a huge portion of good food, well made; you know what you're getting, and it's worth having even if they can't keep out the cilantro, or the hubris.

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