photo: The book cover of the mass hardcover (not one of the 800 limited edition covers) from stephenking.com.
An excuse me, I forgot something entry into the Dark Tower series, this one is actually two novellas--both completely different, though both take place in Dark Tower territory--in which one is sandwiched (or bookmarked, or framed, if you will)--by the other. (Actually, it's literally a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but whatever.) As a Dark Tower book, the novella with Roland takes precedence, but the other story, with Tim Stoutheart, is actually the better, and a mini-Dark Tower series in of itself (with a touch of Jack Sawyer from King's and Straub's The Talisman). Roland's story, with a third-person omniscient narrator, has him as a much younger guy, tracking down a shape-shifter (called the Skin-Man) who's been killing lots of people. Roland himself tells the other story, about Tim Stoutheart, while he and a young boy await the arrival of a group of men--one of whom is the shape-shifter. The story he tells involves a Man in Black, who readers of the series will remember, and he even comes with the initials RF, for die-hard King fans who remember Randall Flagg's various guises. This one has a disturbing bit of Life of Pi in it (it's got an existential tiger), as well as a mischievous and possibly evil Tinkerbell-like character. It's full of the wonderment that I like from the series, and goes easy on the crossover stuff, which some of the other books got bogged down with. This one is better written than the Roland part, as well.
My theory on this book--as it's rare that a writer or publisher will throw in a book that comes much earlier in the series, and a series that is complete without it, no less--is that this is a tied-together piece of two novellas that had been discarded by King and/or the publisher. The shape-shifter story is much shorter, and, though okay, isn't particularly memorable or exceptionally well-written. I think King wrote this as part of the Wolves of Calla string, maybe, and tossed it aside, for the reasons I just mentioned. The Tim Stoutheart story strikes me as a possible tale of Roland's beginning, as it's essentially the foundation of how Tim, a lad who essentially lived in The Shire, grew to be a fearsome and famous Gunslinger--though not as revered as Roland, of course. King, I think, decided that the story would not do for Roland, but, as has been his wont of late, thought it good enough to publish--but how? Well, like this. Though narrated by Roland, the voice is obviously King's, and is a welcome one that we're used to. King tones it down quite a bit, and dispenses with his favorite C-word--which is otherwise used extensively in the Roland story, when it's clear that King is the third-person omniscient voice--because Roland is certainly too distinguished to ever use it.
All in all, the book is a quick read, though the framing is certainly forced, and you won't want the Tim Stoutheart tale to end, and you'll be slightly disappointed by the second half of Roland's frame. It's also slightly more unbelievable, considering Roland is the strong and silent type, yet tells a long-ish story, but he'd been more verbal in the latter books of the series, so what the hey. Ultimately it's a good read, though nothing you haven't seen before. You'll come away very pleasantly disappointed, as you'll be wishing Tim and his mother well.
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