My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This behemoth of a book is an extended meditation on good, evil, and human fallibility. The publisher's summary on the back of many paperback editions is a bit misleading because it suggests larger roles for protagonist and antagonist than those memorable characters actually have. For example, Mother Abagail, the unwilling 108-year-old leader of the "can't we all just get along?" remnant of people who survive a terrifying epidemic of weaponized "super flu," makes her entrance late, and not until eastern and western strands of the story have begun to coalesce. Her opposite number, the unrelentingly evil Randall Flagg, shows up first -- but even he does most of his work through other characters, which to him are disposable. You wouldn't know either of those things by reading the publisher's summary.
That said, shortcomings in teaser text on the back cover are easy to forgive, because King leans hard on his storyteller's art to deploy a large cast here. Larry, Stuart, Glenn, Frannie, Tom, Nick, Rita, Harold and Nadine are all memorable for different and eminently believable reasons. A sad-sack pyromaniac nicknamed "Trashcan Man" almost steals the story out from under the other characters. And in what might be a tip of the cap to a favorite trope of fellow horror writer Dean Koontz, King even creates an effective role for a dog named Kojak.
Some of the plague aftermath described in Book One went on too long for my taste, and a feral child to whom we are introduced seems to become an afterthought once King decides to make him a guitar prodigy and send the teacher who had taken him under her wing off to her gruesome destiny for reasons never fully explained. In a book of this length, however, neither of those missteps proves fatal to the momentum and dread for which King's writing is known.
The book has some deeply poignant scenes also, especially near its end, when a confrontation with evil in Las Vegas and an unexpected Christmas in the Rocky Mountains are written particularly well.
This is not a novel I'd recommend to the squeamish, but it's memorable and worth reading, and I am grateful to my friend Debbie for having brought the story to my attention.