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

Rating: 8/10


Roland of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger, is a haunting figure, a loner, on a spellbinding journey toward the mysterious Dark Tower, in a desolate world which frighteningly echoes our own.

On his quest, Roland begins a friendship with a kid from New York named Jake, encounters an alluring woman and faces an agonising choice between damnation and salvation as he pursues the Man in Black.



“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

Thus begins “The Gunslinger”, the first novel of Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, The Dark Tower series. It is often seen in the Constant Reader community (Constant Readers being the collective name for King’s legions of fans, or CR for short) as the prologue to the rest of the series. And certainly on a first time read, it really is.

By fair the shortest novel in the series, standing at 238 pages by count of the UK paperback, this book is more of a tone setter to the rest of the series. It introduces us to Roland Deschain of Gilead, The Last Gunslinger and our main hero/anti-hero of the saga, as he races across a desolate desert wasteland in pursuit of The Man in Black.

The opening line, as seen above, accurately describes the main plot arc of this book, however, this book should be thought of as more of a collection of vignettes starring our titular main man. Each mini-story serves to build the atmosphere, tone and the world of this “Man with No Name” trilogy and Arthurian legend inspired epic. King really (apologies for the reviewing cliché here) makes grim, gritty atmosphere bleed off the page, whether it be Roland rocking up in the small dusty backwater town of Tull, or the flashback sequence in the Way Station regaling us with a tale of Roland as a young boy in an almost Tolkien-esque kingdom. With that said, you never really get a true sense of what this world, Mid-World we soon learn it is often named, is like, but this is purposefully done. King has an amazing ability to make this world seem like ours, but maybe just one step to the right, a little off kilter. You’ll also often get the impression that this world, along with Roland and many of the other characters, have been around for a long, long time. A countless amount of time. And maybe in this world, time simply doesn’t matter. “For when one quests for the Dark Tower, time is a matter of no concern at all”.

A phrase that passes through many of the characters lips is that “this world has moved on”. Again, this really comes through in this book and thus sticks with you throughout the series. The stark contrast between the world as it is now (whatever Now may be) and what it was, as we glimpsed in the flashback sequence, is drastic. What was once a High-Fantasy type kingdom (the Kingdom of Gilead) is now long gone and crumbled to dust, if it even existed at all. It does feel like Roland is wandering through this dead world as it slowly decomposes, the people, creatures and the very reality itself morphing and becoming more twisted with each passing day.

But whilst this books core achievement is its world and atmosphere, it can also be a turn off for some people. This book does not try to explain anything to you, and it is very weird and twisty and turny, and the narrative structure of this novel is also equally twisted, with a lot of the novel taking place in flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, before returning to the present then back off to the past again. You’ll find that King sprinkles in “modern-day” (well, modern as in up to the late 70’s) references one page, then Arthurian legend references the next, then something completely made-up and strange that only the then cocaine fuelled mind of Sai King can come up with! It is very much a “throw you in at the deep end” kind of book, a book that asks you take it by the hand and just dip yourself into the dark, dusty, dead world of Mid-World.

You may also find that the characters are often lacking, with many being seemingly set dressing or just there to serve a purpose for Roland. Because of the flitting nature of the narrative, the only real character we do attach to is the Gunslinger himself, as many of the characters have only a short amount of screen time. There are a few stand out characters (as King is a master when it comes to character work), but strangely, I found that the Man in Black is probably the second best character out of this book, even though he has a very, very small amount of on-screen time. Much like other great villains of the fantasy genre, The Man in Black is more of a mystical preference throughout the book, never being far from Roland’s mind and the Gunslinger’s one unwavering goal.

With all this said, on a first time read, this is definitely the starter dish to the remainder of the series’ entrée, with the rest of the series being a lot different in how it approaches pretty much all aspects of story-telling (most of it for the better). It doesn’t do anything too spectacular with character work, and at times it can often be confusing. But that isn’t its true purpose. It’s here to introduce you to this strange, unknowable world; to invite onto this journey with Roland, for better or for worse, to see where it takes it you. Its mind-meltingly epic ending promises you that more is to come, this is simply a taste of what’s to come. The Gunslinger is an experimental book for sure, but there is no better way to start your quest to the Dark Tower than this.

“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. alburke47 says:

    I read this about 30 years ago and didn’t like it at all. Not even sure if I finished it. Then I tried it again a couple of years ago and loved it. Weird, huh! Adult perspective, I guess.


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