Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

In my memorial re-read of Banks’ Culture novels, I came to ‘Use of Weapons’ after a gap of more than twenty years. It remains a tour de force. The alternating timelines do take a little getting used to, but the trick is not to worry about the historical timeline running backwards through the novel because I very quickly got used to it; and, like human memory, past events referred to in the present don’t have to fit into a framework but exist quite happily on their own.

As with ‘Consider Phlebas’, re-reading the novel brought out aspects that would not be so clear on a a first read. In “Consider Phlebas”, it was the opening sentence “The ship didn’t even have a name”, which means nothing on a first read, but knowing what we now do about Culture ships and the peculiarities of their naming, becomes a jaw-dropper. In “Use of weapons”, the re-reader’s senses aren’t sledgehammered in quite the same way, but the chair motif becomes very obvious once you know to look for it. (And in case you failed to appreciate it, the UK paperback has actually got a chair on the cover. Nought out of ten for not spoon-feeding the reader, there…)

Cheradanine Zakalwe is the ultimate mercenary, a man of resourcefulness mixed with martial skills, wit and not a little compassion – though that compassion does have its limits, and other characters do well not to cross those limits. Yet I found many aspects of him echoed Banks’ own personality – the dry humour, the hotel explorations (this I can personally vouch for) and the attempts to write poetry. There is a lot of humour in this book – the Culture operative Diziet Sma and her side-kick drone Skeffan-Amtiskaw are a great double act.

As with so many Banks novels, there is a twist at the end (a double twist, in fact), though Zakalwe’s choice of alias in the middle of the book does make one wonder a little, and might be considered to be a bit of a spoiler. But Banks plays a blinder with one of the books’ other motifs and the resolution of that motif, and the kernel of the character, still comes as a shock and a surprise.

My Orbit 2nd impression hardback was not proof-read; someone ran a spell-checker on the MS but didn’t understand the limitations spell-checkers have. In a few places, I had to read back over a couple of lines to get the context so I could figure out the likeliest word that Banks meant to put instead of what the publisher ended up printing. Still, despite my muttering darkly over some of the errors, it did not spoil my enjoyment of what I suspect Banks himself thought of as “a humongous great Culture romp”. This is certainly one of the prime candidates for that honour.

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