Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II (Viking, 2003)

The second volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower series picks right up where the first volume, The Gunslinger left off. Fresh from his palaver with The Dark Man, Roland has traveled to the Western Sea in search of the other members of his "ka-tet" (those spiritually bound to follow him on his quest). Unfortunately for Roland, before he can even determine which way to follow the beach, King unleashes one of the most horrific literary critters ever on him the intelligent, carnivorous crustaceans he calls lobstrosities. Before you can count to three, Roland, whose life depends on his skill with his pistols, finds himself at the tender mercy of razor-sharp claws.

The scene is brutal, startling and a reminder that this series is not business as usual, but something different and special. Few authors would inflict such a level of cruelty on their protagonists — and especially not so early in a book or series — but King does, and Roland not only survives, but is probably the stronger in the long run for the tribulation.

In the short term, though, Roland is in trouble. Serious trouble. Infected and weakening and running dangerously low on live ammunition, he determinedly follows the coastline, uncertain when or how he'll find the people he's looking for — The Prisoner, The Lady of Shadows and Death. Roland meets no one on the beach, but he does stumble across a door. Yes, a door, on the beach. It's a quite mysterious door, framed by air and opening into The Prisoner's world ... and into his mind. And so Roland meets Eddie, prisoner to a major heroin addiction. Roland must save Eddie from not only the ravages of heroin, but the thugs that control the young man's life. The gunslinger's reward? A companion in the throes of withdrawal ... and a week's worth of Keflex.

Back in Roland's world, once Eddie is past the D.T.s and Roland has recuperated somewhat, they set off down the beach again, surviving on lobstrosity meat. A second door presents itself in short order, opening to the same place — New York City — but a different time. And in a matter of seconds, Roland enters the door and yanks the Lady of Shadows back to his world. Or rather, the Ladies, for in the wheel-chair-bound body of the woman Roland kidnaps are two very different women: the intelligent, soft-spoken civil rights champion, Odetta Holmes, and the violent, hate-spewing, slang-slinging Detta Walker.

Eddie falls immediately for Odetta, but unfortunately for both men, wily, vengeful Detta reigns supreme for most of their remaining trip down the beach, a situation that puts their lives on the line when Roland, again ailing, and nearly dead, enters the third door and catapults into an unspeakably vile mind. Death — the aptly named Jack Mort — is a bizarre link between the boy Jake (sacrificed by Roland in the first book), Odetta and Detta. Roland makes use of him to obtain new bullets, a month's worth of Keflex and, ultimately, to fuse Odetta and Detta into a third woman, Susannah, his actual Lady. This newly forged threesome — Roland, Eddie and Susannah — form the tower-bound ka-tet, whose journey King will chronicle in the books to follow.

The relationship between Roland and Eddie, an uneasy, uncertain friendship born of necessity, illuminates and drives The Drawing of the Three. The two men could not be more different, and more than once, Eddie considers killing the weakened gunslinger. But something — fate, perhaps — stays his hand. The pair are as much two halves of one whole person as are the two halves of Odetta's mind. Odetta and Susannah make but brief appearances in the book, a bit of calm around the storm that is Detta. Detta is foul, crass and very over-the-top, but her bravado performance as Odetta's id is necessary for further defining the relationship between the two men and setting the stage for Susannah's entrance.

And King has himself set the stage, with this second volume of exquisitely detailed character introduction, for the extraordinary adventure to unfold in book three. Always a master of small details, King here turns that talent loose on his characters, unveiling new aspects of each player with each turn of the card. Readers are treated to more of Roland in action ... and Roland learning, the hard way, to trust his companions, as he must, if the quest is to be completed. King peppers the book with humour — Roland discovering the joys of highly-sweetened, caffeinated soft drinks is delightful — keeping the serious tone from becoming overwhelming. The action in New York City is fast-paced and suspensful, balancing well the agonizingly slow (for the ka-tet, not for the readers!) trip down the beach. And neatly, King hints at the third book, The Waste Lands through the tarot references on the doors, seemingly drawn from Eliot's famous poem — Roland as the Drowned Sailor/Death, Odetta/Detta/Susannah as the Lady of Situations/Lady of Shadows and Eddie as the Hanged Man/Prisoner.

[April Gutierrez]