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Iain M. Banks – Matter

Title: Matter
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 2008

After finishing Inversions, my craving for more Iain M. Banks had not yet subsided, so I continued with Matter straight away. This being the most recent novel published by Iain M. Banks, I had only heard one comment about it earlier, so I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a fast-paced and fairly straight-forward thriller against a backdrop of the author’s political utopia the Culture. The story focuses on three members of the royal house of Sarl, a kingdom situated on the eighth level of a shellworld (a gargantuan megastructure built in many layers around a central core, giving the effect of a multi-floored planet). Prince Ferbin, heir to the throne of Sarl, witnesses the murder of his father by his closest friend and ally, tyl Loesp, from hereon the antagonist of the novel. Ferbin sets out to gain the help of his sister, long departed from the shellworld to become an agent in the Culture’s intelligence service Special Circumstances. Left in Sarl is Ferbin’s younger brother, not yet of age to ascend to the throne and completely unaware of the danger that tyl Loesp presents to his life.

A central theme in Matter is the relation between different levels of civilisation (a theme recurrent in many Culture novels). The Sarl are obviously not at the top, but pinpointing where they are on the hierarchy of civilisations and what role they play in the greater scheme of things is a major part of the story. Still, the focus is more on people than on ideas, which is perhaps for the good. Ferbin and his travel companion constitutes a well-portrayed couple, a mixture of Ferbin’s gradual coming to terms with his new situation and his former servant’s ascension. His sister, Djan, is what makes the novel connected to the Culture, something I appreciate, but reminds me of the limits of using the Culture as a scene of interesting narration. Back in the kingdom, the youngest brother Oramen is gradually becoming aware of that everything is not as friendly as it seems; someone wants to murder him.

However, I am not very impressed by Matter. It is a good read, average for Banks, which still means that it deserves quite a few snails. Reading statement’s like this: “‘It’s a real shelf-breaker,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s 204,000 words long and the last 4,000 consist of appendices and glossaries. It’s so complicated that even in its complexity it’s complex'” (from an interview in the Guardian) makes me confused, though. What complexity? I found the story straightforward, even though it was divided into many perspectives and so forth. Compared to Look to Windward, this novel seems flat and simple. I also find it pretty easy to predict. There are a few major turnings in the book, but none of them came as big surprises. Considering all these factors, I have to give Matter more snails than I gave Inversions, because on the whole, it is a better read with more depth. However, the three and a half snails I have decided to give it comes far from making this his best novel.

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