“All these years later, it seem to him that the most horrible fact of human existence was that broken hearts mended.”
As our ka-tet heads further into Mid-World on the Path of the Beam, Roland tells them a story. It’s a story of his past: at the age of fourteen, a newly-fledged gunslinger, the world of order and stability around him beginning to fall to the forces of the Good Man John Farson, his father sends him away for safety to the out-of-the-way Barony of Mejis, on the Clean Sea. Things there aren’t as quiet as they seem, however: someone’s keeping secrets, secrets with implications for all of Mid-World. And if that wasn’t enough, Roland meets a girl called Susan Delgado, who is unironically the Most Beautiful Girl Ever, and also unironically his One and Fated True Love. (It occurs to me that King only gets away with this ka spiel – which would read as eyerollingly cliched anywhere else – because he’s established this idea of ka being ineffable and also much more complex earlier in the series. Whereas ka here is literally just a stand-in for Fate, as in, “Fate has flung us together! Woe is me!”)
The first time I read Wizard and Glass, I actually found it tedious, mainly because I was waiting for the whole book to get back to The Amazing Adventures of Lost and Fabled Kansas and our ka-tet, and did not have the slightest interest in reading a 600-page Western about two self-obsessed teenagers.
This time around, though, I knew what was coming, which made the reading experience both better and worse. Better, because I wasn’t constantly hoping to reach the end of the Mejis section. Worse because, well, I knew what was coming. It’s not much of a spoiler given the way the story’s introduced and the general tenor of the series to say that Things Do Not End Well. And Wizard and Glass is, frankly, brutal: building up a sentimental but admittedly very compelling romantic dream only for reality to intervene and tear it down. It narrates a world in which no-one is quite good and no-one (well, almost no-one) is quite bad; in which the structures of law and order are slowly winding down for reasons no-one exactly comprehends, and in which madness is growing with each passing month. In a word, it is nightmarish. Its slow advancement on total disintegration – the horror of the harvest, come, Reap – is masterly.
The story is admittedly an old one, and I don’t think King does anything particularly interesting with it. Bouncing back into the frame narration at the end of the book, too, proves a little disappointing, as the ka-tet, ridiculously, find themselves facing a malign version of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz in a remarkably anticlimactic scene which sees them confront the supposed villain of the piece, Randall Flagg. But Susan and Roland’s story did grip me unexpectedly, and the mundane horrors of Mejis – an abandoned oilfield, a girl trapped in a contract she regrets, a vengeful and bitter township uncertain of its future – are chilling in their own way. And Eddie’s riddle-battle with Blaine remains one of the most exciting sequences I’ve read.
It’s funny how books can shift. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Wizard and Glass this time around as much as I did. Looking back, I can see that it’s a bloated, cliche-ridden, emotionally manipulative thing – but it kept me coming back.