Fairy Tale is Stephen King’s okayest novel to date. Maybe he’s gotten tired after 75 years on this planet, having written a whopping sixty-five books (wow, sixty-five!!!), but his most recent release just feels bland and uninspired. While Charlie Reade, his one and only protagonist (a bit sparse for a 600-page novel), is likable enough, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about him. He’s your average high school jock stumbling into your average, not-quite-Oz fantasy, a land called Empis.
The main problem stems from the fact that, like in the Dark Tower series, fantasy isn’t King’s forte. Not to sound like a broken record here, but King’s approach to storytelling, the “pantser” method (writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants), doesn’t quite work in a genre where world-building is often a necessary ingredient. If we’ve learned anything from the granddaddy of imaginary escapism, J.R.R. Tolkien, building something like Middle Earth takes tremendous forethought. With fantasy, you can’t start typing and see where the story takes you, a technique King uses to significant effect in modern-day horror suspense. Without forethought, the setting can feel contrived and unconvincing, and then the situations in them end up lacking emotional weight. In Fairy Tale, King introduces the reader to a sundial that reverses the effects of aging. But without rhyme or reason as to why such a wondrous, magical artifact exists or how it impacts the people around it, anything can happen, and if anything can happen, nothing matters. Characters can always die and be brought to life because … magic.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Fairy Tale. When you’re as talented a storyteller as King, you can’t help but get drawn in. But if you’re looking to lose yourself in another world, there are far better options on the shelf, more inspiring locales to visit than Empis.