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Onyx reviews: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Nearly eight years after publishing the final volume in the Dark Tower series, Stephen King returns to Mid-World. He calls this new book Dark Tower 4.5 because it fits chronologically between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. As such, it does not extend the series. Instead, it fills in a gap in the timeline after Roland Deschain and his ka-tet leave the Green Palace and before they reach Calla Bryn Sturgis. The book could be read without having read the rest of the series—King summarizes the important details in the introduction—but it's really meant for people familiar with Roland, Eddie, Jake, Susannah and Oy.

In structure, the book resembles Wizard and Glass, though it is much shorter and not fraught with young love. After observing strange behavior in Oy, the ka-tet meets a man who operates a ferry across the River Whye. He chides Roland for not recognizing the signs of an impending starkblast, a kind of freezing hurricane. The ka-tet holes up in a stone meeting hall in a ghost town to ride out the storm. Unable to sleep, Roland's friends ask him to tell a story.

He returns to a time shortly after the death of his mother, who the people of Gilead believe died by her own hand. Roland knows otherwise, and is punishing himself by attending to the needs of his teacher, Cort, who has never recovered from Roland's test of manhood. Roland's father sees that the boy needs something to take his mind off his troubles, so he sends him to Debaria to investigate reports of a skin-man who has killed several people. This is one of the responsibilities of a gunslinger: assisting local law enforcement when they can't handle a problem. It demonstrates to the people that the gunslingers still care about them, which isn't a given in these days when many are turning to the insurrectionist, John Farson.

Jamie DeCurry accompanies Roland on this journey. He is another gunslinger-in-training, from the same class as Roland, Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood. Alain and Cuthbert went to Mejis with Roland, so now it's Jamie's turn. He is a quiet young man, but a deep thinker who is good at solving problems and mysteries, which Roland admits is one of his shortcomings. He hates mysteries. Readers don't really get to learn much about Jamie because his part in the story is relatively brief and his taciturn nature means that he tends to fade into the background, unlike Cuthbert.

The skin-man is a shape-shifter or a werewolf. Among its victims is one of the sisters from Serenity, the convent where Roland's mother was sequestered while he was in Mejis. The prioress, Everlynne, recognizes Roland from his resemblance to Gabrielle Deschain. She asks him to visit again after their work is done in Debaria.

The locals aren't terribly impressed by the two young boys sent to handle the creature, but the town's sheriff has a history with Steven Deschain, so he is willing to work with them. Shortly after they arrive, the skin-man strikes again, killing almost everyone at one of the biggest ranches in the area. One of the few survivors is the cook's son, Young Bill Streeter. Roland feels Bill could identify the man if he saw him again, and Jamie puts enough clues together to limit the pool of possible suspects to a subset of workers at the nearby salt mines. Jamie assembles a posse to bring the men back. In the meantime, Roland waits with Bill, who is terrified and all alone.

Roland keeps him safe in the town jail. To pass the time, he tells Bill a story that his mother used to tell him when he was a boy. "The Wind Through the Keyhole" forms the central part of the novel. It is a wonderful adventure story involving a young boy on a quest to help his mother. It takes place in a long-ago time, perhaps when King Roland ruled in Delain. In a sense, the story is a fairy tale, in that it involves a fairy (but not of the Tinkerbell variety), an evil step-parent, a dragon or two, and a magician who is said to live backwards in time. 

Tim Ross sets out through the dangerous Endless Forest and the Fagonard Swamp that lies within, armed only with a handgun, a lamp, a few provisions prepared by his former school teacher, and a stout heart. He encounters many mysteries and adversaries on his journey, which takes him far north of his little home village of Tree. He is also faced with a starkblast. Not every creature he meets in the forest wants to eat him, but many do, and it isn't clear if he is the brunt of a lethal practical joke played by the sinister (and vaguely familiar) Covenant Man or if he is a tool in a joke on someone far more important than him.

Though Tim's story takes place well before Roland starts out on his quest, many of the hallmarks of Mid-World are present, including one of the Beams that support the Tower and a device created by North Central Positronics that is governed by Directive Nineteen. It is a heroic quest, and not one aimed at children, either. Tim is forced to face some very adult situations and make difficult choices. The first time he wields his gun, though, readers will recognize the steely calm that overtakes him: the boy has the mettle of a gunslinger.

Young Bill Streeter isn't quite as strong, but with Roland at his side, he faces the procession of potential candidates for the skin-walker. At the end of his mission, Everlynne gives Roland a letter from his mother that provides some insight into her actions. His mission to Debaria may have been meant to get keep him from dwelling on his mother's death, but it actually gives him some closure.

At the end of the storm, the ka-tet resumes its journey. There are more stories Roland could tell of the years between the final days of Gilead and when he found the trail of the Man in the Black. Here's hoping the Song of the Turtle lures King back into Mid-World many more times in the future.

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