Stephen King, The Wastelands: The Dark Tower III (Viking, 2003)

In the third installment of his on-going Dark Tower series, King picks right back up with the team-building theme of the previous volume, as Roland the Gunslinger continues to hone the skills of his companions and finally draws their fourth (Jake Chambers, the boy he sacrificed in Book One) to his world.

Having prevented the death of young Jake at the end of the second book, Roland has created a split in reality, resulting in one universe in which Jake is alive (the boy's reality), and one in which he's dead (Roland, Eddie and Susannah's reality). Both man and boy suffer dramatically because of this dichotomy, their minds slowly being torn asunder by the dissonant dual existence of both realities. This poses a grave danger to Susannah and Eddie, who fear what might happen if and when the gunslinger slides fully into dementia... but with his unparalleled shooting skills intact.

Aware of the incipient threat, Roland pushes the lovers to their limits during training, preparing them for the time when he may be more danger than help. Early scenes featuring the party focus on Roland's slide into insanity, and Eddie and Susannah's ascent as gunslingers. There is a terrifying encounter with one of the twelve Guardians of the world, an immense cybernetic Bear by the name of Shardik (an amusing reference to Richard Adams), and further evidence of the Old Ones, whose technology litters this world. The group finds the bear's base, a world-spanning electronic gate and the Beam which emanates from it. The Beam which becomes their path towards the Tower.

In his own world, New York City of the 1970s, Jake's grip on sanity is becoming as tenuous as Roland's. Some part of him knows he should be dead, yet here he is, still attending prep school, still the child of indifferent parents, longing for the affirmation and affection of a man in another world who once let him die. Jake's waking days begin to overlap with Eddie's dreams as the moment of his cross-over draws nigh, until their paths literally cross and Jake almost meets a younger Eddie (with his still-alive brother Henry). Jake's passage to Roland's world is fraught with peril, but successful, and his crossing heals the wounds in their minds, if not necessarily their hearts.

With the ka-tet now complete, the foursome follow the Beam deeper into the land, encountering no one at first, and then stumbling across a pocket of gentle, generous long-lived inhabitants, who are in awe of meeting an honest-to-goodness living gunslinger. They tell Roland's group about the war-torn city of Lud, and, chillingly, about Blaine the monorail, whom Jake wrote about in his other life (yet another example, like Shardik, of the thin line between the worlds). The group's leave-taking is heartbreakingly sad, but vitally necessary.

In Lud the group is split, Eddie and Susannah speeding to Blaine's "cradle," Roland chasing down Jake, who has been kidnapped by one of Lud's warring factions. They meet up again at the station, boarding Blaine for what will be the trip of a lifetime, for Blaine is not only sentient and riddle-loving, but rather insane, with a suicide wish. King closes the book infuriatingly (for there were several years between its last page and the ensuing volume!) with a compromise being drawn between Roland and Blaine: the ka-tet will riddle Blaine until the end of his track. If they stump him, he lets them live. If he answers every riddle... they die with him.

King's writing is, as in the previous volumes, wonderfuly descriptive and crisp, dropping more hints about the present nature -- and past history -- of Mid-World. Eddie and Jake are more fully fleshed out here, the former finally shedding the shadow of doubt that is his brother's legacy, the latter showing courage and intelligence beyond his years, without being precocious. Even the addition of an intelligent animal -- Oy, the billy-bumbler (a badger-like critter), who attaches himself to Jake -- typically a sure-fire way to slide into unbearable cuteness, is handled with aplomb. With the ka-tet complete, and readers hooked, King can now turn his attention to their journey to the Tower... and venture further into Roland's past, topics which will define the remaining volumes in the series.

[April Gutierrez]