When Wolves of the Calla ended, Roland’s ka-tet was broken, with one member whisked off to who knows where and others torn up with grief for lost friends and loved ones. Song of Susannah picks up moments after that breathless conclusion as the remaining members of the ka-tet and their new friends in Calla Bryn Sturgis make a plan to save their lost friend and protect the Tower, which appears to be in increasing danger of falling before Roland can reach it.
The rest of the novel follows Roland and his friends on three separate detours on the path to the Tower. Susannah, under control of Mia, is in New York City in 1999, looking for the Dixie Pig, where she’s supposed to give birth to her “chap.” Jake, Oy, and Father Callahan are hot on her trail, hoping to save her from whatever the low men and the Crimson King have in store. Eddie and Roland end up in Maine, trying to talk some sense into the bookseller Calvin Tower and seeking answers about the mysterious author of ‘Salem’s Lot.
Teresa: One thing I’ve observed about Stephen King over the years is that he’s consistently good at set-up, and he can usually build a terrific story from his ingenious premises, but sometime after the mid-point the stories get out of control. He’ll throw in too many new elements and make the story unnecessarily complex. It’s like he just loses focus. Even some of his best books, like The Stand, show signs of this.
If you look at the Dark Tower series as one long novel, this is the point where the story spins out of control. There’s just too much going on, and I don’t care about enough of it. The only thing that made me at all interested in Susannah’s storyline was the fact that I love the character of Susannah. I’m not wild about pregnancy as a plot device, and I didn’t like the way it played out here at all. The scenes at the Dixie Pig were outright ridiculous. Do. Not. Want. (I did like the bits with the turtle. Sköldpadda is a satisfying word, and I find myself thinking it when I see a turtle now.)
Jenny: I agree that this is the least satisfying installment of the series so far. I don’t have anything against pregnancy as a plot device in general, but pregnancy dragged out over — what is it now? Three books? Steve, dude, we have had enough. Give us a baby or cancel the show!
I had more serious complaints about this book, though. I didn’t like the fact that our ka-tet was split up, for one thing. This series is much more effective for me when everyone is together, sharing strengths and weaknesses. For another, bringing Mia in as a central character simply fell flat. Mia is not real. She’s a cipher — sort of a demon, sort of a ghost, sort of motherhood incarnate, sort of part of Susannah, and not really any of those. Making something so vague into a main character was, to my mind, a real error. I could never care about her, because what was there to care about? I don’t mind annoying or unsympathetic characters — I love Calvin Tower, the selfish book dealer and owner of the rose — but a cipher? No thanks.
Teresa: Yes, splitting the ka-tet was a problem, especially splitting it into three parts. The plot ended up too busy, and the wonderful interaction between the characters is lost. And Mia did not work at all. I could have accepted her as part of Susannah maybe, or as a totally separate invader, but sort of both? Huh? Also, were you as frustrated as I was about Black Thirteen? On this second read, so close on the heels of Wizard and Glass, I was struck by how easy Black Thirteen was to deal with. It’s supposed to be the worst orb in the wizard’s rainbow, but Rhea’s pink orb did a lot more damage. You could argue that sending Susannah to New York was worse than messing up Roland’s mind, but Mia made Black Thirteen do that! If it’s that easy to control the thing, well, I don’t get the danger. Just saying it’s dangerous and showing people having a hard time resisting it isn’t enough, not after Wizard and Glass. This wouldn’t bother me so much were it not for the way the orb is finally disposed of. It bordered on distasteful to me, and I don’t think its end was earned.
But now to a potentially controversial point, what did you think of the developments in Maine? Like you, I think Calvin Tower is a terrific character, and the storyline surrounding him continues to impress me. But how about King’s presence in the novel? This is the kind of thing that could go spectacularly wrong, but I thought it mostly worked. King didn’t turn himself into a hero—in fact, he’s almost as frustrating a character as Tower. Some of the foreshadowing was heavy-handed, and the journal entries that close the book struck me as self-indulgent, especially on this second reading. But King as part of the story works (especially in light of the ending of the series, but we’ll leave that aside for the next book).
Jenny: Okay, here’s where we finally diverge about something. King’s presence in his own book just frosts me. I can’t make myself like it. You’re right that he doesn’t make himself a hero — he makes himself a god! A capricious, fallible god, maybe, but it’s quite clear that he is the twin of the rose, he is the linchpin of existence, the creator of Roland and Eddie and all these universes that spin lazily around the central universe. Um. Steve. It’s great to be a writer and all, but whoa, that diadem looks kind of prickly.
I wanted there to be a different explanation for the connectedness of all these worlds. Father Callahan, the devastated world of the superflu, Randall Flagg, the Breakers, the can toi — yes, all these are things that have come out of Stephen King’s imagination, but that is frankly too obvious. It’s like why firemen wear red suspenders. I wanted something magnificent that fit into the mythology we had already seen developed in the world, something about the Tower and the Beams and whoever is above the Crimson King, and the way all the multiverses spin together. I’ll roll with King’s presence, but to me he’s a disappointment.
Teresa: Heh. I knew this was a controversial point. I think that this and the ending of the series are the two moments that most divide fans.
I agree with you that King’s presence is an obvious solution to the connections, maybe too obvious, but I disagree about King as a god. I didn’t see him that way at all. He’s the vehicle for the story, and therefore important, just as the rose is important, but he’s being driven by something or someone else. The story wouldn’t have been finished at all had Roland not turned up, and then there are the references to someone (Eddie? Cuthbert?) meeting King when he’s a child. To me, he’s part of the story, the conduit for the story, but he’s not the source of the story. So the question is, who is in charge of this thing?