28 March 2008

Locus Magazine's Graham Sleight reviews Iain M. Banks

from Locus Magazine, March 2008

Matter, Iain M. Banks (Orbit 978-181149-417-3, £18.99, 544pp, hc) February 2008. (Orbit 978-031600-536-4, $25.99, 608pp, hc) February 2008.

It sometimes seems that there are two Iain Bankses, and the difference between them has nothing to do with whether the book is science fiction or not. The first is the merry chatterer who can bring to sparky life vistas you just want to hear more about, whether in contemporary Britain or the far future. This is the guy who names his spaceships things like Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall. The second is an altogether less amiable character: the one who engineers the often savage structure of his stories, who killed Horza at the end of Consider Phlebas, who makes the seemingly distant lines of story converge.

Matter, Banks's first SF novel since The Algebraist, and first Culture novel since Look to Windward, is told by the merry chatterer for most of its length. Indeed, much of its story doesn't feel like SF at all. It has more to do with the dynastic intrigues you might find in the fantasy novels of, say, George R.R. Martin. In the first chapter Ferbin, a not terribly bright prince, witnesses a battlefield execution of his father, King Hausk. The killer, Tyl Loesp, is Hausp's second-in-command, and means to usurp him. Tyl Loesp returns to the capital, where he puts about the rumour that Ferbin is dead. There is a surviving prince, Oramen, but he is not yet of age to rule, so Tyl Loesp announces himself regent until Oramen's next birthday; in reality, of course, Oramen is the last obstacle between Tyl Loesp and permanent power, and so his life is in danger.

The bulk of the novel follows the stories of King Hausk's two sons: Ferbin on the run with his Sancho Panza-esque servant Holse, and Oramen mostly in the capital. There is a third child of Hausk, though, a daughter: Djan Seriy. Daughters being valued in Hausk's kingdom pretty much as they were in the Middle Ages, she was parcelled off overseas — overseas in this case being to the Culture. Hausk's kingdom, it turns out, resides on one level of an onion-like "Shellworld." The different layers of this world are linked by transporter "Towers," and it's through these that communication with the outside world takes place.

The tone of Djan's story is notably more steely and modern than that of the other two. She has been trained up as part of the Culture's "Special Circumstances" directorate, meaning that as a fighter and operator she's hugely more formidable than any of the humans back at her home world. So Banks has to delay her arrival there till the end of the book, since otherwise his ostensible plot would be over too soon.

The second Banks, the architect, comes into view when Djan gets home, and so does the real plot. We've been told, in an initial infodump about the Shellworlds, that many have been destroyed in the past by a species called the Iln. Late in the book, Oramen is present at the discovery of an alien artefact, which turns out to be an Iln world-killing machine. Very suddenly, the story becomes about the need to stop it. It ramps up sharply into the apocalyptic, and ends with a bang. (There follows a 15-page Appendix, listing all the names used, and then an Epilogue clarifying what happened at the climax.)

So Matter isn't so much a Culture novel, or a space opera one: it is, though, a characteristic Banks novel. The darkly comic double-act of Ferbin and Holse, for instance, is the sort of thing that you find it difficult to imagine many other writers placing in the normally po-faced context of space opera. It's huge fun, enormously readable, and endlessly inventive. If I have a reservation, it's that it doesn't quite cut to the bone as do some Banks novels. (I'm thinking especially of The Bridge, Use of Weapons, and The Crow Road.) The climax is too sudden for all its implications to sink in, and in retrospect the book spends too long getting to this point. But it's still a hugely welcome return to the field.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the March 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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