Author: Iain M Banks
Details: (c) Iain M Banks 1990; pub 1998 Orbit; ISBN 1-85723-135-X
Verdict: Although Use of Weapons is clever and beautifully written, I found it somewhat confusing.
Reasons for reading it: I got very, very excited about The Player of Games, and several people recommended that I should read UoW next.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
I can really see why people are enthusiastic about Use of Weapons, but it didn't wholly appeal to me. I think in many ways it is a victim of its own success, from my pov. It is a very cleverly worked mystery story (of an unusual type; the mystery is not 'whodunnit', but 'what did he do'), but as such, the amount of information deliberately withheld from the reader made it hard for me to follow the story.
It's not helped by the fact that it's very brutal; the violence and suffering are so powerfully evoked that I was reluctant to engage with it at all. I half-deliberately read it too fast because I didn't want to take in the events it was describing, and as a result, I didn't manage to keep track of all the jumping about between different time frames, and characters and events not being what they originally seem. The violence is very necessary, very much the point of the book, and quite the opposite of gratuitous, but that doesn't change the fact that I don't enjoy reading about violence. Zakalwe's fear of remembering the horrors of his past is so intensely portrayed that it made me reluctant for the mystery to be resolved, rather than eager for the dénouement. In fact, when the mystery is resolved, I didn't find that everything that had confused me slotted into place, I was just more confused.
That said, the quality of the writing is absolutely amazing. Even though I was somewhat repelled by UoW, it created intense impressions of scenes, and characters, and feelings. The romantic interlude between Zakalwe and Shias Engin is one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever read, but rock-solid plausible in a way that almost no literary romance ever manages. I fear I'm being a bit of a girl here: I don't like all those nasty gory battle scenes and assassination attempts and torture, but there's a really nice love scene!
One thing that UoW does have in common with The Player of Games is that the background and world feels impressively detailed and real. It's very cool to get Zakalwe's outsider's view of the Culture, and even though the Culture is very much in the background of the story, I could hardly remember that it's an entirely fictional society. Diziet Sma is a wonderful character, too. (Am I remembering this wrong, or is 'da' Marenhide' in her name a reference to something of Le Guin's?) There are moments when UoW gets slightly preachy; there are a couple of speeches put into the mouths of characters that seem to be telling the reader what to think more than I'd ideally like. Mostly, I could see for myself what questions the setup is raising about how Utopian the Culture's foreign policy really is; indeed, that's the major strength of UoW. I didn't need this point to be spelt out in the dialogue, especially not at the expense of the plausibility of characters' voices.
I think I may have another try at reading UoW at some point. Even though I didn't wholly enjoy it, it's pretty amazing in lots of ways, and I think I'd like it a lot if I could get over my squeamishness enough to work out exactly what's going on.