Stephen King had used the prior book in the “Dark Tower” series to establish a fish-out-of-water party that would travel with Roland on his quest to reach the Dark Tower. This entry in the series then focused on that group making physical progress toward Roland’s goal.
Despite becoming distracted at times by other immediate needs, Roland was seemingly more focused than ever to arrive at the Dark Tower.
Readers had learned about the reasoning for Roland’s quest through fragments and more fragments were yet to come. For reference, it would be helpful to keep in mind that the Dark Tower was under attack by the forces of the Satan-like ‘Crimson King.’ These forces included his henchman, the Man in Black. King described the tower as being located at the center of all realities and Roland’s world, in fact, being that ‘all world.’ As such, Roland’s world contained certain indicators that could offer clues as to the location of the tower and failure to protect the tower would result in the end of everything across all realities.
While “The Waste Lands” contained a cohesive story, it was split up into a series of adventure vignettes. The first such adventure involved Roland’s party encountering a giant robotic bear named Shardik and they quickly disabled this foe by shooting a communications satellite off its head. Roland identified Shardik as one of his world’s legendary guardians and soon the party was following a mystical beam that the guardian had protected, a beam capable of leading them to the Dark Tower.
Roland’s mental anguish over the death of his initial companion, Jake, back in the series’ first book led to this installment’s second major sequence. Roland had prevented Jake’s death during his travels to New York in the series’ second book and King then spent time following Jake around the life that followed for him in 1977 New York. By burning the jawbone of Walter, the Man in Black, whom Roland had seemingly killed at the end of the first “Dark Tower” novel, Roland put into motion a magical plan whereby Jake was again brought into Roland’s world. Amongst other things, the means of that plan involved Susannah being raped by a demon but then outrageously turning the situation around to hold the demon at bay. While Jake was successfully brought into Roland’s world again, the consequences of Susannah’s encounter with the demon would loom over later books in the series.
Roland’s expanded party then traveled further along the Tower’s guide beam, encountering the last citizens of a small town named River Crossing. At this point, Roland also added to his group Oy, a dog-like creature with oddly-strong intelligence and tracking abilities that would come in handy later in the story.
The majority of the book’s final act involved a trip to the city of Lud, which appeared to be a twisted version of New York City. It was ruled with religious zeal by someone called the Tick-Tock Man and the city might have reminded some of the post-apocalyptic New York featured in the film “Escape from New York.”
Jake was temporarily separated from the rest of the party in the maze-like wreckage of Lud, with Oy helping to locate him. After the party members were reunited, they made an escape from Lud aboard Blaine the Mono, a monorail train that was controlled by a psychotic, degraded artificial intelligence whose primary computer hardware was stored in Lud. Blaine had planned to gas Lud’s remaining citizens but Roland’s party was able to hitch a ride out of town on the monorail, escaping certain death by solving a riddle for Blaine.
Tick-Tock Man did not entirely exit the story but he was not a major factor in the book’s resolution. He was recruited for unspecified additional work by a gunslinger named Richard Fannin, a man whom readers would identify as actually being Walter or the Man in Black.
One of the focuses of “The Wastelands” was the topic of riddles, as Blaine had an odd fixation with such word games and that interest set up a cliffhanger ending. Blaine agreed not to crash Roland’s party to death at their destination point in Topeka, Kansas so long as they managed to stump him with a riddle while en route.
“The Waste Lands” left readers on that cliffhanger after it was released in 1991. In the endnotes, King promised a next volume sooner-than-later but what happened would make the likes of George R.R. Martin proud. The fourth “Dark Tower” book did not came out until 1997.
“The Waste Lands” helped to give readers a bigger sense of Roland’s world but it also raised many new questions. For example, Shardik was identified as having been constructed by a company known as North Central Positronics and the guardian’s age was speculated to have been in the thousands of years old. By providing such information, King seemed to hint at a larger history yet to be related since he did not provide readers much in the way of details.
At this point in the series, I remained skeptical that King would tie up many of his loose ends. If anything, he seemed most comfortable simply building out the “Dark Tower” books as a vast landscape for smaller stories rather than presenting a tight, cohesive mythos to readers. Unlike detail-oriented long-term planners, such as Martin, King’s writing style was always similar to that of a pulp-writing grinder. That faster and looser approach was what made the epic nature of the “Dark Tower” series an odd fit for him in many ways. King’s strength was always on characters and manageable set pieces. “The Waste Lands” gave readers his biggest canvas thus far for those adventures to take place within but it also left great gaps or questions that were not defined. Skepticism aside though, this third book in the saga was an encouraging development for those fans hoping that the series would get closer to the “Lord of the Rings” heights that King had cited as an inspiration.