Stephen King, Wizard and Glass: The Dark Tower IV (Viking, 2003)

As with the previous two sequels in The Dark Tower series, King picks up immediately where the previous book left off, in medias res if you will.This time around Roland the Gunslinger and his companions (Eddie, Susannah and Jake, each from New York, though of different times, and Oy, the billybumbler, from a world like Roland's) are aboard Blaine the monorail, who is quite sentient, intelligent and utterly insane. He seeks to suicide at the end of his line, taking the group with him. To survive, the quartet must out-riddle Blaine, no easy task, for he seems to know riddles from many worlds. The ka-tet does eventually succeed, though in an  unexpected way and after many nerve-wracking pages.

They find themselves now in an alternate Kansas, one that avid King fans will recognize as the Captain Tripps-beset world of The Stand. Here the barriers between worlds is thin, given physical form in a "thinny," the likes of which they first encountered in the previous book. It's here in Kansas that Roland decides to tell his companions about his past. At least, a part of it.

What follows is an extensive look back at a few brief months in Roland's life, when he was but fourteen. We meet the young man before he is a gunslinger, witnessing the moment when he is unwittingly goaded by his mother's lover Marten into prematurely challenging his teacher Cort for the right to bear his guns (in the hopes that he will fail, and be banished). That he succeeds is no surprise, for Roland has the guns in the present time, but how is again rather unexpected. Not long after this triumph, Roland and his friends Alain and Cuthbert are sent away to a small town, to keep them away from expectant trouble in Gilead. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to their fathers, similar trouble is brewing in backwater Hambry.

Hiding behind false names and a cover story that they are errant boys sent away to atone by counting fishing nets and livestock, the three boys quickly realize that the town has links to John Farson, the Good Man, who is behind the trouble in Gilead and elsewhere. There are non-mutated horses and, more significantly, crude oil (hidden in tankers) awaiting Farson in Meijis. And though the boys do not realize it until much, much later there is a bit of the legendary Maerlyn's Rainbow, a glass ball which can show events elsewhere — or of the future — also hidden in nearby, in the uneasy care of the local witch, Rhea. Complicating the boys' plans to disrupt events is Roland's tumble into an all-consuming first love. A forbidden love at that, since the young woman, Susan Delgado, is promised to the town's mayor to be his gilly girl — a mistress to bear the sons his wife has not.

The plotting and counter-plotting between the young gunslingers (who actually mostly bide their time, to Alain and Cuthbert's dismay) and the town's conspirators comes to a head on Reaping Day, with blood and flames aplenty. The outcome is again not unexpected, for we know full well that "the world has moved on" and that Roland has become an austere loner, just now learning again to care, to love. And neither state of being came to be without some measure of pain. The resolution is not an easy one to read, but is extraordinarily compelling, because we see the precise moment in which Roland chooses the Tower over everything else (Susan included) and gain some understanding as to why he made that choice.

Back in the present day, the ka-tet encounter a bizarre Emerald City, with Randal Flagg (The Stand's "man in black") as the Wizard, and get one last "flashback" (they actually travel in time, astrally, it would seem) to witness Rhea's final revenge on Roland, thus closing of that period of his life.

Wizard and Glass continues King's excellent characterization of Roland, and, if you're like me, leaves you longing for more of his past, to see the boy he was before ka (fate) stepped in and the world began to move on. This does mean that there's precious little involvement for the other companions for most of the book, but the transitory characters King populates Roland's story with more than make up for their prolonged absence. The connections King draws between his various stories not only gives those stories new meaning, but expands the scope of Roland's quest, soon to wind down as the final three books come in quick succession.

[April Gutierrez]