Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

It’s never good for my discussion of a book when I take too long to read it. I don’t read slowly, as a rule, and I’m scatterbrained enough that, by the end of a week, I may be a bit hazy on the impressions I had at the start. If I stretch beyond a week… yeah, no. Likewise, if I take too long after I finish to start discussing, I just… forget everything. I have skills. So because I’ve been extremely tired and not really reading quickly in the last week and a half, I was worried my opinion of Use of Weapons was going to suffer. And it might have done slightly, I suppose. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Player of Games, though it’s fairly close between them. My main problem with use of weapons is how this delay has interacted with a feature of the structure.

There are two narratives running through the book in chronologically opposite directions. The jumps between the two are quite jarring, I thought, compared to a lot of multi-strand books, and it’s this I think that my slow reading has exacerbated. If you’re stopping at the end of chapters, and then coming back to ask “what fresh weirdness is this?”, you’re going to get a bit of a sense of disjointedness. So I’m struggling to tell how much of that is genuine dissatisfaction, and how much my own damn fault. Each jump is to a distinct, new episode, and there’s a period of reorientation every time as you try to get back into that narrative – there’s never much in the way of linking between them and it’s left to the reader to figure out how much time has elapsed, episode to episode. And indeed, at the start, to figure out how the two narratives interact. And at least partially – though I know it’s a deliberate thing Banks is doing – I’m not sure it entirely works. It’s just that bit too disjointed. Having to spend that moment every single time going “wait, what’s happening now?” Just sort of detracts from the flow of the whole thing.

But that’s pretty much my only gripe with it.

What it does do, and which is a marked improvement on Player of Games, is give me characters I actually like and/or care about. Gurgeh was many things, but likeable was most definitely not one of them. He wasn’t relatable, really, either. It didn’t stop it being a fantastic book, as I think I made pretty plain in my post about it, but characters are very much one of the things I really care about, so it was great to have them in Use of Weapons. We see most of the book through the eyes of Cheradenine Zakalwe*, who does the “lovable rogue” pretty darn well. He’s got a good balance between cheery and charming, and painfully dark and mysterious past, and just in the right proportion that you actually like him enough to care about the pain of his dark past. This is… rarer than it should be, for me. Maybe I have less patience for traumatic past because I’m inherently unsympathetic. Whatever the reason, he works well and is actually really pleasant to read, while not just being all surface.

More importantly, the less prominent but way more awesome Diziet Sma (sorry, Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’ Marenhide). She’s basically competence personified. We don’t get into her head as much as Zakalwe’s, but when we do see her she’s just… there is literally nothing wrong with her character. Confidence and competence and smug and sarcastic. I love her dearly.

What they do is between them create a really neat Culture/non-Culture dialogue. And the fact we don’t see much of Sma kind of plays into that. I’ve read three Culture novels now – Consider PhlebasThe Player of Games and Use of Weapons – and I still don’t really know all that much about the Culture. I don’t think I’m supposed to. While I don’t remember much of CPPoG was definitely very externally focussed. Yes, we were inside the head of someone from the Culture, but he spent the entire book slipping away from that and focussing closely on a different society entirely. We get some of his mindset and his opinions, but we don’t get the exposition. We don’t get the infodump. And likewise, Use of Weapons restricts our view of the Culture, though in this instance, by giving us Zakalwe, a non-Culture main character, and then severely limiting our access to the Culture character who might give us better insight. With a very small exception, our time spent within Culture spaces is filtered through Zakalwe’s perceptions. And so we can’t be fully sure of what we’re seeing because it’s him we’re seeing it through. But then we bring in just enough Sma to have an insight… and then she’s gone again. Banks is giving me just enough on the Culture to make me incredibly curious, but nothing more… and god damnit it’s working. I just want to keep reading all the books.

And I think that’s the big draw of these books for me, the setting (directly contradicting what I normally say about SF because life would be boring were I consistent). Don’t get me wrong, having the great characters of Sma and Zakalwe was brilliant, and helped me enjoy the book a lot, and the plot was fun… but I’m mostly reading because the Culture is weird and I want to know me.

Speaking of the plot (or not, since I haven’t really), aside from the aforementioned disjointedness, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but it just didn’t grip me the way PoG did. It’s fun and clever and has twists and all the good things I like… but I’d just read PoG and it was not quite as good, not quite. I suppose, for me, the overarching story didn’t work quite hard enough to encompass all the episodes, and so it didn’t feel as much like a cohesive whole as it could have done.

But, grumbling aside, it is still an absolutely fantastic book and if I hadn’t had a book club book to read next, I’d have gone onto Excession next. But I did. So I read Neuromancer. And I didn’t like it very much. Will post soon.

*MAJOR SPOILER TAG HERE. PROPERLY MAJOR.

Ok, so the twist at the end. WOW. I did not see that coming. Should I have? Is that the real victim of tired, slow reading? I’ll admit, I swore when Livueta said it. And my flatmates laughed at me. I definitely saw the twists coming in Player of Games, but telling me the main character, in whose head we’ve been the entire time, is NOT WHO HE SAID HE IS? As twists go, I was happy with it… by which I mean it made me angry in the good way. I did then spend the next two days picking it apart going “but what about the bit of bone by his heart?? Did he lie to us all along?? Did he misremember? HOW DOES IT ALL WORK?”. And I still don’t have satisfactory answers for some of it. I would have liked him to tell us why and how it came to be that Zakalwe was the chair maker all along, but at the same time, I can see that it would have ruined the surprise to have then explained it. Much better to have Diziet go find someone else and start the story all over again. That feeling of knowing there’s another story out there – even one we’ll never read – is actually really pleasant.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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