This is my review of the novel, originally published at readreread.com.
The Dark Tower ended in September of 2004, quite definitely and inevitably and, although rough in places, I would say quite well. But it is no great secret that Stephen King may stumble in his endings. The story of the Dark Tower, having ended, now adds another chapter. The Wind Through the Keyhole, a novel that is not so much extension as it is color and shading, offers a little more backstory and a fairy tale. A Stephen King fairy tale, which is to say that it has dragons, it has fairies, and it has dismemberment, domestic abuse, and taxes.
Keyhole is almost entirely story-within-story. The outer layer, perhaps the story you came to hear, is little more than husk. We have had seven full Dark Tower novels to tell the fate of (in the language of Midworld) the ka-tet, the group of seekers for the Tower. I am told that the novel takes place in the space in time between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but that is of almost no consequence. The narrative in the present moves just far enough for Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, "Old Long, Tall and Ugly," to tell two stories.
The first is something of a crime procedural—in the odd feudal gunslinger world where Roland is part knight, part diplomat, part law-man. Roland has come to the little town of Debaria. He has come, still a teenager, to hunt down a killer. And yet, more so than the flashbacks in Wizard and Glass, this is the cold, determined man we've known in his later years. When he comes upon a boy who may have seen his family torn to pieces, Roland almost unconsciously begins to construct a trap. The bait is ten or eleven years old, and an orphan.
There are two warring currents in the story of Roland's life: Attachments make a man vulnerable, but separation from humanity makes him brittle. We know from past experience that he is, or becomes, a man who would leave a trusting boy to die. A man whose guilt, like half-healed wounds, stings with each step that he takes.
But here the weight is not quite so heavy as all that. Here we feel the echoes of the larger tale, and this may be why we have returned. But today we are here to listen to a story. And as this young gunslinger sits in a jail cell with the boy at the center of his trap, Roland begins to tell "The Wind Through the Keyhole":
The story-within-story-within-story begins with a young boy, his mother, and his lumberjack father sitting in their little cottage. It begins, "Once upon a bye, long before your grandfather's grandfather was born," as all such stories in Midworld do.
One day not long after, the father fails to return from work. Happy families in such tales do not long survive. Things go poorly for Tim, and more poorly still for his mother. And soon the boy is setting out alone into the forest with an axe and a gun and a little bit of magic.
More echoes: here they are of The Waste Lands, my favorite of the Dark Tower novels. That volume is about journeys through the new and dangerous and cruel. And it too finds a young boy alone and desperate for a way out. Echoes also of The Talisman and The Eyes of the Dragon, although the echoes are in theme and tone, not weight.
It is a fairy story, darkened in the way King darkens each of his stories. And it is a good story, though not one, I think, that really stands on its own.
And so I am not here to talk about why you should or should not read this novel. This would be like asking, should I watch the original or the extended cut of The Return of the King? The small choice, that is, that masks the larger.
I am here to talk about the Dark Tower. Because it has been perhaps the most unconventional epic fantasy since the genre became the genre. Because it doesn't fit—and this in a way that is deeply interesting. Because King is a better writer, from the distance of a few paces, than I think most of us realize.
Because it does not, until its final moments, end with a strength that matches its first four books.
The Gunslinger is skeletal, bare, bleak, and metaphysical. It is end and beginning. The Drawing of the Three, the most Stephen King-ish of the books, is about postwar America seen from Roland's alien perspective. The Waste Lands is about decay and renewal. And Wizard and Glass, the most melancholy of the bunch, is about losing in an instant more than one man can imagine.
Each novel has been given the time to develop, to marinate, to sour appropriately. To resonate at its own emotional frequency. These four novels emerged slowly, spread out over King's career. The final three novels were written pretty much straight through and published in 2003 and 2004. These three volumes have all of the ingredients but little of the subtlety.
Not long before this sprint to the finish, King was struck and nearly killed while walking along the side of the road. It is usually unfair to look for reflections of real-life events in an author's work, but here it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that King made the decision to damn-well finish the series while he was still able.
I am being overly critical, of course. There are some bare patches, and the plotting becomes obvious at times. But the complaint is more minor than it seems. There is great sorrow and great achievement here as the story comes to a conclusion that is inevitable and right. There are deep roots back through the series, flaws in the character of Roland Deschain. Flaws colored, ever so lightly, by this latest twisted fairy tale.
Should you read The Wind Through the Keyhole? Read The Gunslinger and you will be drawn in and at some point come through to it. Or you'll hate the series and move on. But I must warn that it will not let you go easily.
It begins with a wave of tainted air blowing in off the Bohane river. Cutting through that "sweet badness" is Logan Hartnett, the Long Fella, the Albino, a man who runs things in this city—and this novel, City of Bohane. It begins in long shot: Hartnett is seen walking not long after a knifing. Walking upright, shoulders back, like a general. Walking home from a declaration of war.
It is October, some time in the early 2050's, and winter in this west-coast Irish city has a bitter edge to it. Despite his gait, there is no spoiling for a fight in Mr. Hartnett any longer, but a rival family has been encroaching. They've sensed weakness. And a response was needed.
An old rival is said to be in town. A big fella. Intentions unknown.
And the Long Fella, the 'Bino, is beginning to show his age.
City of Bohane is the debut novel by Kevin Barry, an Irishman with a knack for economical prose and an ear for the music of dialect. It is a novel of many things—violence, post-apocalypse, gang warfare, even fashion—but it has the sense not to be about any of these. It is a very good novel.
The gang warfare, or clan warfare, could be set in any time and place that lacks the structure of an effective government. In the Ireland forty years after our time, something has happened to eliminate much of the technology and structure ubiquitous to the present. There may be bits of technology and a scattering of machines still in use, but society seems to have fallen back to pre-industrial levels. The only apparent professions are butcher, barkeep, "hoor," and newsman.
But this is not science fiction, not speculative fiction, not about the year or the intervening changes. The setting provides a tone, a sense of otherworldliness, a blank score ready to be filled with the music of the Bohane dialect. Barry shows little interest in the other baggage of post-apocalypse. It could be set anywhere, or nowhere.
This is a novel about plumage and territoriality and jealousy. This is a novel about just what sort of pack animals we really are.