Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel Book 1)by Iain M. Banks
I have a stack of books, that are getting old, that I finally dipped into: one was Perdido Street Station by China Mieville and another was Consider Phlebas, which I had forgotten I had. So after finishing Mieville I started on Banks. This was an interesting read that almost put me off at the very onset with a whole bunch of grossness (was it really necessary?). Unfortunately as far as gross scenes, it doesn't get better. Somewhere along the way someone must have recommended that the first thing you want to do is gross (shock) the reader.
I liked the idea of the changer and that he worked for the warrior like beings Idirans (three legged three meter tall alien). Banks had me there and he could have just forgotten all the grossness; but, no, that wasn't going to happen. I don't mind being taken out of my comfort zone, but I expect it to be accompanied by good writing and a solid plot. Unfortunately the plot wandered all over the place and left me wondering why some of the grosser parts had to be in there at all.
Horza the changer is saved from an ignominious death and is to be sent to an old post on Schar's world; a Planet of the Dead; protected by the Dra' Azon Quiet Barrier; a place that Horza once worked, to find the Culture mind that hid itself there. Horza is the Idiran's one hope in retrieving the most advanced technology the Culture has produced; and that's the only reason he is still alive.
But before going there we need to divert him and what better way than to have the Culture attack the ship that saved him, thus leaving Horza floating in space. A man size being in a suit floating in space, trying not to be picked up by the Culture yet is somehow found by a bunch of pirates who have faulty equipment and the combined IQ of a group of thugs. They only stop to salvage the suit; saving Horza is mostly a mistake.
Lucky for Horza he wakes up in time to be forced into a duel to the death, to take another crew members place. From there Horza begins to plot how he will impersonate the captain, Kraiklyn, and divert this pirate ship to Schar's world. This is done through the long route. The Captain of the Clear Air Turbulence is a man with many plans, but soon we discover that his intelligence and resources are limited and his plans go amiss and awry while delaying Horza's journey. The captain's greatest skill seems to be in losing his crew to his plans; all of which are what he considers easy-in and easy-out. As to how these serve the story, it might be mostly so that the crew will get whittled down by the time Horza takes over.
The second disastrous plan takes them to the vast Orbital ring at Vavatch where Horza gets separated from Kraiklyn and what little will be left of the crew, in order to entertain us with more grotesque that seem to serve only the purpose of getting Horza a shuttle to use to find Kraiklyn and crew (though for quite some time it's uncertain who might have survived the disastrous mission).
Once he links up with the CAT and crew, Horza is ready to transform and take Kraiklyn's place, but we have to endure the game of Damage (that is taking place here in the Orbital because of the impending doom of the Orbital). Damage is a high risk game with some really strange rules and high payoff that only serve those who make it out of the disaster zone in time. It has nothing to do with the plot other than something Horza seems doomed to endure to eventually kill off Kraiklyn, so he can take over the ship.
It's about halfway through the book; the crew is down to the bare bones and further since it seems low enough that Kraiklyn was convinced he needed one more body. That body turns out to be Perosteck Balveda, a Culture agent that Horza has had the bad luck to run into earlier and who he now has to neutralize before getting started. Horza decides to keep her alive which, within the story and characters, makes perfect sense; but for a majority of the second half this also seems to neutralize her as a major character even though she seems integral to the story. After a protracted yet exciting escape scene the real adventure begins at around three fifths of the way through the novel.
This novel has a lot of action and a gross amount of blood, gore and violence and has a steady pace of all of those with little rest in-between. Once again if it all moved the story forward and had some purpose it would be easier to swallow. But the side trips seemed mostly meant as a means of introducing these elements for shock effect until we get to the Damage game, which is more shock effect if not a bit of cultural shock in trying to understand how the people on the Orbital Ring seemed to justify their life, which at best is a half life. But if we were to characterize the first half as moving forward then it might be the mood setter for the second half to help the reader see that when things start to look bleak for our characters it's because they are bleak and will continue to be so.
Don't expect a sunny ending.
The major plot concludes, not too satisfactorily for this reader and though there is a bit of a twist to the end of the Horza plot there is more to read in an Appendices that would like to go on to explain the Culture and the Idirans and their war. This is followed by a Dramatis Personae.
The important part is an Epilogue at the very end where there is a bit of a twist that can only be fully appreciated and understood from reading the Dramatis Personae.
It would be ridiculous to try to second guess the author or for that matter the editors and publishers for the reason for this type of ending; but if the reader slogs through the whole mess to the end as did this reader then you should do yourself the favor of slogging through these three parts to acquire the full effect of the story.
I recommend this to anyone who likes a lot of blood, gore and violence in a consistent relentless pace along with a rather thin plot and some interesting Science Fiction elements along the way. Maybe we could call this a Dark Horror and Dystopic SFF.
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