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I want to focus on Roland now. Many unanswered questions remain about this gunslinger and his mysterious past. The world has moved on, but this hard-as-nails cowboy continues to travel the long miles of its wastelands, in search of hope or answers of some sort. As iconic characters go, he ranks up there with Mad Max, the Mariner from Waterworld and Eli from the Book of Eli (sorry, cinema is my only reference point). He lives by the gun, but only when the “battle-rage descends,” as it inevitably does. He’s a survivor, and he has a mission, but will seeking the Dark Tower free or destroy him, or both? What kind of man is he? Part of that question is answered in this extraordinary latter half of the Wastelands as Roland and his friends are tested in a gut-wrenching race to survive a city gone mad.
Jake is taken and we wait to see how Roland will respond. Will he leave Jake and continue his quest to the Dark Tower, or save Jake and risk the city becoming his own grave. The diseased, rotting city of Lud is a rat trap with a junkyard maze stacked high and set with booby traps. Gasher takes Jake to an underground bunker where it seems all but impossible to get in, even if Roland could follow. But Roland doesn’t hesitate. He will not let Jake fall again. I love how Stephen King keeps the pace tight and cuts away to other action in the book as the story builds to a climax.
Our fellowship has split up, and Eddie and Susannah are forced to kill a crazed mob in the streets. It hardens them and awakens them to the necessities of survival in this place. They face an even bigger challenge with Blaine, a half-crazed, sentient train who feeds on riddles like a heroin addict on the needle. It can kill with electricity in its cradle, but Eddie and Susannah walk right up to the train’s gates because they need him to get across the wastelands. It’s a dangerous gambit with their lives on the line, but it’s part of their ka, or destiny, and they must hurry before time runs out.
Roland meanwhile stands outside the bunker and devises a plan for Oy (the pet billy bumbler) to crawl through the air ducts and pounce on the Tick Tock Man – an over-the-top barbarian who runs half the city – so Jake can push the button and open the hatches for Roland to get to him. Oy will almost surely die in this effort, and Jake, glimpsing Oy in the air vent above, focuses on his pet and misses the chance to open the door. The seemingly invincible Tick Tock Man (he’s lightening fast and lethal with a throwing blade) is badly mauled by Oy and is about to painfully kill Jake for this, but Jake stumbles onto Tick Tock’s throne where he feels a gun. Jake is beyond fear now; he knows it is his life or Tick Tock’s and in pulling the trigger and putting a hole through the barbarian’s head, he loses his innocence. King does a spectacular job of showing the fallen humanity in this lion’s den and Jake’s vulnerability here, hinting that Jake, if held captive, would be subjected to cruel and perverse things that might shatter him. But instead of becoming a victim of would-be rapists, the end of his childhood comes when he takes a life to save his own. It’s profound, expertly executed, and wholly unexpected.
The ending is amazing for the mix of sheer bravado and faith (in his ka) that Roland exhibits in challenging the demented Blaine who plans to kill the gunslingers. They escape the city (thanks to Susannah decoding the prime number riddle) that Blaine has just unleashed biological weapons on, but they are trapped on a train that plans to kill itself and them. Blaine demands riddles, but Roland rebukes him for his stupidity in making a death threat unless he gets his riddles. Roland is challenging a crazed machine, and he knows this may be the end, but he’s in his “battle rage,” and instead of bullets, it’s words he’ll use to challenge this strange foe. Who will win and how will this play out? This cliffhanger leaves a lot of unanswered questions but propels us to End-World, where the Dark Tower awaits. It’s an amazing story with an ensemble cast that I’m quickly falling in love with and promises many more unexpected and thrilling twists.