It's hard to imagine more fertile ground for a thrilling novel — a small town in Maine is trapped under an impenetrable dome, its citizens left to their own devices. As you'd imagine, especially in the world of Stephen King, chaos ensues.
Under this dome, however, the chaos is rather predictable. This novel is supposed to be about characters, and how they respond to their dire circumstances. But the main reason this novel failed for me is that these characters are rendered as flimsy stereotypes of real people; and they always do exactly what you'd expect. The bad guys do increasingly bad things, and the good guys scramble to stop them. There's no middle ground. There's no moral confusion. And hence there's no real conflict, other than the obvious and predictable good vs. evil.
Chester's Mill, Maine, is supposed to be a microcosm of American culture in general, and the political culture war specifically, but the people who populate this small town of King's imagination are nothing but tropes and types. Not one single character in this supposedly character-centric novel has any nuance or depth whatsoever.
To zero in on specifics: This caricature of a small town, populated with a bunch of bumpkins, is led by Big Jim Rennie, a religious, self-righteous, hypocritical despot (he's almost EXACTLY the same character as the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption, to give you a frame of reference). Big Jim and his ever-increasing band of nogoodniks are opposed by a small band of rebels for whom common sense, decency, and the welfare of the town are, of course, their guiding principles. The two sides collide in increasingly clunkily plotted and laughable ways. ("...the book’s broad conspiratorial strokes become farfetched..." understates a NY Times review.)
I tried to consider this novel as simply a novel, not a Stephen King novel, and I'm sure many King fans will scream about how wrong that approach is. But given how this novel was positioned (this NY Times piece, e.g.) as a a real literary leap for King, I thought it should be held up to some literary standards, as opposed to just saying I liked it because it was a fast read and the action was cool — both of which are true.
Still, even holding the book up to the "King Standard" — it's only an okay book; that according to my friend Jeff, a huge King fan. Here's what he told me: "More than any disappointment about the book -- which is mild at most -- I'm more disappointed by the fact that such a talented storyteller spent almost two years writing this mediocre genre fiction rather than something more soulful/lasting/engaging/humorous/thought-provoking/etc." Jeff mentions Hearts in Atlantis and Misery as two examples of novels where King moves beyond genre-y, predicable fiction.
So, my advice: Venture under this dome at your own risk!
(On a related note, kudos for King and his wife Tabitha! They're paying bus fare for a bunch of Maine soldiers stationed in Indiana to return home for the holidays. That almost made me feel guilty about totally laying out his novel here.)