Song of Susannah is a cool 400 pages or so — quite a relief from the 850+ pages of the two previous volumes in the series. Strictly on a physical level, it’s a lot less book to heft around. However, the condensed nature of the book does not negate the value of its storytelling. Song of Susannah is tight in its action and character development, which makes the story all the stronger.
At the end of Wolves of the Calla, the battle was won but the katet was divided — Susannah, pregnant with a demon’s child and being overtaken by Mia (a new personality), has stollen the Black 13 (a powerful and dangerous stone) and absconded to another world and time. Song of Susannah opens in the midst of this loss, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan nursing their wounds and working to come up with a plan to both save Susannah (in one time and place) and obtain the empty lot with the rose from an obsessive bookseller named Tower (who exists in a completely different time and place).
All their planning doesn’t help much, however, because ka has its own designs, immediately setting everything awry — Roland and Eddie find themselves fighting thugs while chasing after the bookseller, while Jake, Callahan, and Oy find themselves going after Susannah.
Unlike the previous book (with it’s slow build to battle), the action in Song of Susannah comes quick and bloody. Roland and Eddie are immediately attacked when they land in the past, and Susannah’s struggles are constant, if internal. The intensity is ever present, since the characters (and the readers) know they are facing virtual ticking bombs — time is desperately short. Failure to achieve either of their goals will result in death of Susannah and/or the destruction of all the universes.
Structurally, Song of Susannah is different from any other book in the series — each chapter is titled as a verse, making the book itself the overall “song.” Each chapter also concludes with a two stanzas of a commala, which is a kind of call and response song. The structure and inclusion of verse lends the story a folky vibe, like a legendary tale shared over a campfire. This feels fitting considering the revelations that come later in the book, with the writing down of tales being vitally important to the characters survival.
You’re in the hands of fate.
No matter if it’s real or not,
The hour groweth late.
The hour groweth late!
No matter what shade ya cast
You’re in the hands of fate.
Susannah & Mia
As the title would suggest, Susannah’s journey is at the heart of the novel. Mia’s power over Susannah’s body is so great that she is even able to grow legs (the pale legs of a white woman) after she enters through the doorway to New York — Mia proving to be an actual entity, rather than merely a new split in Susannah’s psyche, as previously thought.
Overtaken in this way, Susannah is trapped within her own mind — only able to bear witness as Mia betrays her friends. What makes her story so fascinating is how the relationship between Susannah and Mia is complicated.
Mia is the invader and Susannah her victim. However, for all that Mia is a powerful being capable of possessing another, she is hopelessly naive in other ways. She is desperate to birth and raise a child, and this desperation has led her into an agreement that ultimately cause her death — something she accepts if only for those brief moments of motherhood.
In addition, Mia is terrified of the New York she finds herself in. Accustomed to the slow, emptiness of Midworld, she is horrified by the throngs of people in the city — to the point that she seeks help and guidance from Susannah herself in order to be able to navigate it.
For all her anger at being possessed by Mia and the harm done to her katet, Susannah can’t help but feel sympathy for the demon. On several occasions, they discuss their situation with each other, trying to understand and to find some means of coming to terms with the situation. They are both women burdened by the inequities of the worlds in which they lived, both women who claimed what they wanted and/or fought back in the ways they knew how.
In the midst of this, Susannah must face her own broken past, when she was actively burdened with two spit personalities. One of these personalities, Detta Walker, bubbles up from the depths of Susannah’s mind to make an appearance, fighting back in the incursion and against the men. There’s not much she can do beyond spit curse words, but Mia and the evil men who are bargaining with her for control of the baby are unsettled and upset by the presence of Detta. At the very least, she shakes the foundation of their calm confidence, revealing how their control of the situation may not be as great as it seems.
Susannah and Mia’s story is left as a cliffhanger at the end of the book, and I’m fascinated to learn what happens to the both of them.
There’s a young man with a gun.
Young man lost his honey
When she took it on the run.
She took it on the run!
Left her baby lonely
But her baby ain’t done.
A number of stories approach the meta by having their characters seek out the writers who created them (i.e., Redshirts by John Scalzi or the film Stranger Than Fiction) and/or have included some variation of the author themselves within the story (i.e., “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker). However, in my opinion, this novel takes the cake in terms of sheer — I don’t even have a word for it.
The meta has seeped into The Dark Tower series from the beginning, with storylines and easter eggs referencing other Stephen King novels. This makes sense, since the Dark Tower is the center of a larger multiverse, in which many of King’s stories are meant to be tied together.
However, at the end of Wolves of the Calla, our group of heroes discover a book — Salem’s Lot, a vampire story written by Stephen King. Callahan — being a character in both The Dark Tower series and Salem’s Lot — is both horrified and fascinated by the book, since it dredges up questions about the nature of his existence. Is he just a character in someone else’s story? Or is he a master of his own destiny?
But even more importantly, what this discovery implies is an author at the heart of it all — something that Roland and Eddie discover in Song of Susannah. While they are finishing up their business in upstate New York, the learn of strange occurrences happening surrounding the home of a young writer by the name of Stephen King and, since he is also the author of the novel they discovered, the two gunslingers decide to ride out and meet him.
What occurs next is a delightfully weird meeting between the gunslingers and King. It’s a mind-bendy moment — one that simultaneously made the characters feel more real and almost dropped me out of the storyline. King is horrified by the presence of his characters, and the characters are equally unsettled by him.
King writes about this fictional King by drawing upon some of his real-life experiences, including his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. It makes the reading a strange experience, because it sometimes hints at the intimacy of a memoir, while also being situated in the fantastical. Further, the fictional King is a center of power in the story. The events have to be written for the heroes to win, with destruction of all the universe promised, if he fails to finish the writing — which is the nature of being a writer, I suppose. Although, the fictional King’s power is granted further resonance because his presence causes the opening of portals to other worlds, openings that draw creatures into this world.
As a writer myself, it’s fascinating to read this section of The Dark Tower. I have to admit having had my own ponders about the characters that I’ve put to the page. Though they’re created from my own head, sometimes they feel very real, and I’ve certainly wondered what it would be like if my characters lived their own lives beyond just the words I’ve shaped for them.
It’s strange to think that I’m almost done with the series — considering I’ve been plodding my way through for almost two years now. I’ll be finishing up book seven within the next month or two (depending on the rest of my reading schedule). King also two published two additional Dark Tower tales, a prequel and a story that chronologically falls between books four and five, which I will also likely read and share here.
If you’ve read The Dark Tower series, I would love to know your thoughts on it.