So, a first time reading of The Gunslinger is a little confusing because you literally have no idea what's going on, where it's happening, and have no context to place all this new information within. I guess that sort of describes reading any new book, but it becomes more apparent after you've read an entire series and go back to the beginning, and just think 'how on earth did I get any of this the first time round?' Quite a lot of this teeny novel (it's only 200 or so pages, compared to at least 400 in all the other books in the series) looks at Roland (the aforementioned Gunslinger)'s life pre-quest, and pre-the ultimate breakdown of his home, his world, and possibly even his universe (I'm not too clear on that bit), as well as moving the story forward in useful and interesting ways, and setting it up for amazing things to happen.
Here's the thing though. I feel like, as a stand-alone book and especially the first in a series, I'm not sure it really stands up as an example of what the series is later to become, and I worry that people will read it, find it a bit interesting but not all that much, and then decide not to read on. I mean, I can appreciate the stories from Roland's childhood because I've read Wizard and Glass (book 4) which is set just after the events recounted in this book, and I appreciate the whole thing with Jake a LOT more having read the other books. To be fair to The Gunslinger, I think it does improve as one in a series towards its end, and leaves enough unsolved so that you want to read more, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount that you don't know yet.
Now to discuss a few aspects of the book (and they definitely relate to the series as a whole as well) without ruining anything... Firstly, there is mention in this book, and something that is expanded on much more in The Wastelands (book 3) of the way technology, or more broadly 'civilisation' ruins everything, or at least has in the world that Roland inhabits:
"'But civilisation, you know...'I feel like this is a theme that is extremely important in the entire series, since in a way, Roland is a relic himself of the pre-'civilised' world, and so out of step with it, and yet he is really the only one who can save it (or so we must assume). It's also almost a vision of what happens when technology fails, and who is left to pick up the pieces when this happens (but that might be more of a thing in other books than this one, and oh look, I'm getting ahead of myself!). But yeah, it's definitely something to think about when reading this series.
He trailed off, unable to describe the change inherent in that mechanised noun, the death of the romantic and its sterile, carnal revenant, living only a forced respiration of glitter and ceremony; the geometric steps of courtship during the Easter-night dance at the Great Hall which had replaced the mad scribble of love."
The Dark Tower also introduces us to the terrifying horrors that are the slow-mutants, origins not made completely clear, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with the whole civilisation thing that Roland talks about. In a memorable, and truly scary scene in the dark of the inside of a mountain, the Slow-Muties close in on Jake and Roland as they desperately try to escape, and trust me, it's not going to make you any less afraid of the dark, or help your claustrophobia any. More interestingly, and sort of metaphysically scary, is the concept of the magnitude of the universe, and the idea that, as this book suggests, a universe could just be an atom on a blade of grass of another universe, and there could be an infinite number of universes, something which the human mind really can't intuit, and which really does give you a headache to think about (although that could just be the cold talking again.) This universe concept, while offered only as a little snippet pretty near the end of this book, is something that takes on greater meaning exponentially as the series moves on, and could be the most important concept covered in the series as a whole. Or, at least to me it seems this way- you're seriously going to have to read all seven books to form your own opinion on it!
Probably the best thing that The Gunslinger does, in terms of preparations for the rest of the series, is set up the character of Roland so that you are pretty much fully prepared for almost all his future actions. There is really only one thing that one needs to know about Roland- his quest for the Dark Tower is more important to him than all other things, and he will let absolutely nothing stand in his way to reach it. While this may sound formidable and kind of awesome of him, it also displays a single-mindedness that really isn't healthy and means that he has the ability to hurt those he really loves, even though it hurts him too. This is something that is very evident throughout every book, although it is perhaps clearer nowhere than in this book, which can even be seen as sort of an extended character analysis of Roland. But it's also quite a bit more than that.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for this series a bit, and I think it's pretty clear how much I utterly love it. Whenever I see a bad review for any part of this series, seriously, my soul weeps a little tiny bit! It's quite a while until I read the next in the series, but I may become even more complimentary then, especially considering that it introduces my favourite character in the whole series... but, I shall be calm and shhhh until the time to review it comes!