Writing about Reading: Use of Weapons

July 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

uowbanksIain M. Banks’ novel Use of Weapons is the third of his Culture series. I read (and reviewed) the first book, Consider Phlebas, a couple of months ago, but skipped the second one to get to this novel because someone told me that it jumps around in time. My little space opera also jumps around in time, so I wanted to see how Banks handled some of the problems in writing a story like that.

What I got was an absolutely fantastic page-turner.

I’d been a bit lukewarm on Consider Phlebas, but Use of Weapons had me from the get go. It’s the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a very efficient soldier whom the Culture drags into service every few years in order to either stop or start a war—sometimes both. This time out, he’s sent back to a planet where he stopped a war before, in order to keep yet another war from starting. That’s the “present” storyline.

Every other chapter, however, dives successively deeper into Zakalwe’s past, and that, as it turns out, is where the real story is. As payment for one of his early jobs for the Culture, Zakalwe was given a new body—one that doesn’t age. But Zakalwe has committed a multitude of sins, and as we unwind his past, we begin to see how truly awful immortality can be for someone trying to atone for the unforgivable.

I will give no spoilers for the book, but I will tell you that the last two chapters pack a one-two punch. Probably one of the best one-two punches I’ve read, actually. I actually said aloud, “OH MY GOD” (as my wife can attest, given I woke her) after each reveal. If you think the writing is odd in spots, trust me, there’s a reason for it. And it will blow your mind.

If Consider Phlebas left you lukewarm, Use of Weapons will make you see why Iain M. Banks was one of the most praised science fiction authors of the last twenty years. I’ll certainly be reading the rest of the Culture books, and I may even read Use of Weapons a second time. I was tempted to start over as soon as I finished the last page, just to try to figure out how he set up that ending so masterfully. It’s just that good.

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