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Iain M. Banks – Use of Weapons

Title: Use of Weapons
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Don Metcalf
Year: 1990

I’ve founnd that Iain M. Banks is quite good at characters, but that his stories set in the Culture are seldom based solely on biographies (although that isn’t true for some of his non-nciece fiction novels, such as The Wasp Factory), and thus, Use of Weapons is something of an exception. The story is wholly focused on a man born and raised outside the Culture, Cheradenine Zakalwe, and on his interventions in less advanced civilisations. However, these missions for Special Circumstances (the name of the Culture’s covert ops division) aren’t what matters,  but rather  Zakalwe himself. The structure of the book is far from straight forward, with chapters running in chronological order interlaced with those running backwards in time, in which the reader as well as the Special Circumstances agent himself gradually explaining and coming to terms with who he is.

Using such a complex structure easily turns itself against the author. Is it truly motivated or is just a ploy to embellish an otherwise dull story? I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely motivated, but I must admit that Banks manages to pull off this difficult feat fairly smoothly. He has a plan and it works. That being said, the first third of the book is quite confusing, before the reader is able to sort out what is what and which stories are related.

Use of Weapons relies heavily on the main character, who is adequately interesting to make it worthwhile. However, the diverse structure of the novel makes it difficult to connect with Zakalwe and thus makes the biographical journey less effective than it could have been. An additional problem is the landscape through which this journey takes us, because much of the setting is just that, a setting for something, without merit or interesting features of its own.

All things taken together, then, is this reliance on characters able to balance the lack of interesting settings? Yes, at least partly. I have decided to give three and a half snails to Banks for this novel. He has succeeded in writing a difficult novel, but only insofar as his idea works and he manages to keep my attention all the way through.  I would say that Use of Weapons is fairly average for Mr. Banks, which means it’s pretty good.

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