The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Great first line, eh? So begins The Gunslinger (1982), the first installment in Stephen King's epic seven book Dark Tower series. In it we meet Roland Deschain as he travels across a desolate wasteland in pursuit of a mysterious sorceror. This episode is only the latest trial in a life-long quest to reach his ultimate destination: the enigmatic Dark Tower.
Roland, thin and tough as a piece of old leather, is the last surviving gunslinger. In the baronies of Roland's homeland, the gunslingers were an honorable lot and acted as a sort of peace keeper and diplomat combined into one. Under increasing pressure from malevolent forces, the gunslingers (and, indeed, civilized society itself) eventually collapsed in the wake of a monumental struggle with said forces. Roland now stands (or more accurately, wanders) alone and has sworn a vow to seek the ultimate source of creation, the Dark Tower. This quest puts him directly at odds with the aforementioned malevolent forces who seek to destroy the tower for their own nefarious purposes.
The world which Roland inhabits is strangely reminiscent of our own and, indeed, contains many familiar elements. There are remnants of technology strewn about the desolate landscape, though Roland professes to not understand many of these devices. Moreover, some cultural references (for instance, the song 'Hey Jude') are shared with our own world. These elements suggest that the setting of The Gunslinger is a strange sort of parallel universe or perhaps lies somewhere in the distant future of our own reality. Roland claims that his world has "moved on" and hints that this might be caused by straying away from the ancient ways of magic. The odd incongruities between Roland's world and our own set up a kind of disoriented feeling in the reader and nicely enhance the overall mood of the novel.
The Gunslinger recounts Roland's pursuit of Walter, the mysterious man in black (though you may know him as Randall Flagg from The Stand), across the nameless desert. Along the way he encounters a number of situations that reveal themselves to be traps placed in his way by Walter to test his resolve. In one encounter, the town of Tull is whipped into a religious frenzy and attempts to lynch Roland. The townspeople ultimately learn what it is like to be on Roland's bad side (i.e. at the end of his gun--he doesn't have the title gunslinger for nothing). Roland survives the tests, though not without some serious psychological pain. Not surprisingly, the climax of the novel comes when Roland does, in fact, catch up to Walter. Instead of a titanic showdown, some serious philosophizing ensues, predictions about the future are made, and Roland is left alone next to a great sea to ponder how to proceed with his quest. [PLEASE NOTE: I'm intentionally glossing over the plot here...I don't want to reveal too much.]
It was interesting to reread this novel after gaining some perspective by reading the rest of the series. The novel was genuinely more enjoyable. In particular, there is a fairly stark contrast between the Roland of The Gunslinger and the Roland presented in the later novels. In this novel, he seems to be fairly flat and nearly void of emotion (at least on the surface), and his actions in The Gunslinger certainly reinforce this view. It takes some time for the reader to become sympathetic to Roland's cause. After my initial reading of the book, I was fairly unenthusiastic about continuing to follow what, at the time, seemed a flawed, unlikable character. It is not until such time that his ka-tet has been formed that the true character of Roland is revealed (and after the events chronicled in Wizard and Glass, I don't think anyone in their right mind could not help but sympathize with Roland).
Remember that The Gunslinger servers as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythos and really only begins to scratch its surface. The novel is carefully constructed to lay the groundwork for the epic story that follows in the later novels. Taken on its own, I would call it only a passable effort for a novel--there are intriguing parts but not a fabulously enjoyable read (hence the mediocre hamster number). When viewed in the context of the rest of the Dark Tower story, however, it is a fitting start to a truly grand (science fiction-western-horror-fantasy) adventure!
[I finally got around to creating a graphic to indicate half steps in the hamster rating scale. Please do not be alarmed--I want to state categorically that I do not condone violence toward hamsters!]