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Lady Sharrow: Past and Present
Against a Dark Background - Iain M. Banks
Member Name: bilbobaginz
Against a Dark Background - Iain M. Banks
Date: 12/03/13, updated on 12/03/13 (72 review reads)
Advantages: Characters connect, good overall twisting story-line.
Disadvantages: Story-line not well executed - a bore in places. Flashbacks not necessary some of the time.
Lady Sharrow wanders with intent along the long glass shores of some distant, course continent. She sings softly, a song from her past, as she drifts sadly over the artificial dunes, spotting in the distance a beachcomber at odds with the landscape. On the horizon a saddled beast appears, and strapped to its back, a rather unstable figure struggling to direct the mid-tamed creatures mass. It's Geis, Sharrow's cousin, come with news of her current predicament, news too important to be exchanged over the phone - though Sharrow suspects a more personal reason for her cousins unorthodox arrival. The two's history is a complicated one, as the tale will inevitably address, but it's not a patch on the perplexing society they belong to. The system of planets our two characters find themselves contains a single ancient society constantly at ill-ease with its self. It's made up of a complex network of governments, companies, funds, trusts, religious factions and noble families all yearning for success. Just like on Earth (but on a far more rigorous scale), the greater the hold over the masses and the wealth of the system the better. There is a constant barrage of claims to legality chipping away at the defences of each financial 'sanctuary', numerous filings of law-suits; attempts to sniff out the loop-holes. The whole place swarms with business minds, sifting through the dirt (the debris' left behind by former rules, regulations, and agreements long since reinforced or fallen), attempting to decipher gain from decay. Evidently, this is NOT a Culture place.
The Huhsz are a particularly powerful religious cult that have taken a particularly nasty turn to Sharrow - believing that, unless her bloodline is ended, their Messiah cannot be born. You see, in Sharrow's past she has made a few critical errors, one of which resulted in the death of several million people (20% of Lip City), when the dismantling of a powerful Lazy Gun went horribly wrong. The Huhsz are about to acquire legitimate 'hunting passports' that will allow them to lawfully commence the big event which they believe will culminate in the Ladies sacrifice. As an added layer of suspense, they only have one year before the passports expire, and potential safety can be arranged for our main character.
Lazy Guns are one of the last remaining mysteries of the system. Eight were discovered, and several were used to drastic effect. When you use a Lazy Gun, the method of destruction it applies varies depending on the size and strength of the object(s) targeted. A human target might take a laser beam, bullet, or a heavy weight to the head for instance, whilst a ship might hit an ice-berg or face the wrath of a ferocious tidal wave. The Lazy Gun works in bizarre and unexplainable ways. In the case of cities, thermo-nuclear explosions are the norm, though in one instance a comet struck, causing similar levels of devastation. In the wrong hands, a Lazy Gun is the most deadly tool in the entire system.
With the Huhsz and the Lazy Gun as continual themes, 'Against a Dark Background' indulges its' reader the life and times of lady Sharrow, a level headed, army-trained, kind-hearted (but ruthless), strong-willed, resistant woman from Golter, a planet lit by the sun, Thrial, the only star for a million light years. It's understandable then, that after 7,000 years of space travel, the systems inhabitants have never managed interstellar activity - they're all alone. The only way Sharrow can stop the Huhsz is by acquiring the only artefact they see greater in value than Sharrow's sacred suffering, the Universal Principles. This ancient book is said, by Sharrow's dead relative Gorko (the former head of her formerly rich and powerful family), to contain the where-abouts of the last remaining Lazy Gun. However, it is in fact Breyguhn (Sharrow's half-sister) that sheds this information to her. Breyguhn is being held captive by the Sad Brothers (another cult) in the Sea House, and on visiting her sister early on in the novel, a picture of the two's past is quickly revealed. It is fraught with sibling squabbles on the highest level. From the day they first met, a rivalry has existed, and Banks takes great pleasure in exhibiting this relationship to his reader in flash backs, and in great detail.
The flash-backs attempt to build suspense and detail between Breyguhn and Sharrow, though certain episodes delve into unrelated areas of Sharrow's life. They mainly feature rivalry over men, the back-stabbing competition they had for a certain cousin back when the two were still in their teens. Perhaps the most interesting flash-back however, doesn't feature this, it features an android named Skave. In an effort to impress Breyguhn, Sharrow hacks into the 7,000 year old family android and alters its sleep, giving it a nightmare that will seem to the sentient machine to last 1,000 nights - and in which there is no escape. This vicious act reveals a lot about Sharrow's darker side, and might well be a hint of things to come.
In true Banks fashion, there are a host of other main characters (which perhaps I should have mentioned earlier). Clearly, Sharrow cannot complete her dangerous quest to rediscover the UP and LG alone, so she has to reunite with her previous companions, her previous Combat Company which she led during the 5% Tax Wars several decades prior. Sharrow reacquaints herself with the team: Cenuij, a disgruntled man contented with his life in the city and reluctant to join Sharrow's crusade; Miz, Sharrow's former lover and a rich entrepreneur; Zefla and her brother Dloan - the former a tall and slender, upbeat figure with an optimistic approach to life, and the latter a strong, stubby and quiet man with a protective outlook on life. Sharrow also acquires the help and guidance of a few other intriguing characters: Travapath the wizard-like philosopher and Feril the adventurous android (who assists Sharrow to the bitter end).
Along the way to the Universal Principles, the team first find themselves attempting to attain an Antiquity; the Log-Jam's prized, Crownstar Addendum, one of the most valuable items in the system. The Log-jam is a fascinating location, inventive and unique. Banks has created a floating city made from thousands of permanently docked ships, each catering to different urban function - shops, bars, homes, an airport, banks and vaults, etc. It is within the most highly secured vault that Sharrow, Miz and the team attempt to steal the Crownstar Addendum, but not all goes to plan...
On leaving the vault, Sharrow is struck by an inhumane sensation of pain, a piercing, sickly injustice seeping to the very depths of her nervous system. She falls into a sort of coma of pain. What follows is a meeting with two identical twins (who Sharrow suspects to be androids). It is with these twins that a new element is added to the story, because Sharrow discovers that at any moment she can be harmed by use of a mysterious Voodoo doll at their command. Suddenly, nowhere is safe. The twins have only one ambition, to gain control of the last remaining Lazy Gun through manipulation of Sharrow... But who are they working for?
The trail eventually leads Sharrow to the thrown of the Useless Kings - a religion vowed to curse and demoralise its own God; a religion based around the utter hatred of the sacred (awesome idea Banks!) - and it is here that the whereabouts of the Universal Principles are realised. As to where that will lead Sharrow next is another thing entirely!
I think the novel is set up really well at the beginning. It has all the right ingredients for a good thriller or tragedy, and there's even some comical dialogue and witty humour thrown in as well. It seems like it's going to be yet another classic Banks adventure, written in the style of his earlier Culture novels, but with a new and intriguing spin. What's bitterly disappointing then, is that Banks, despite all the great ideas put forward in this book, not to mention the resonant characters, doesn't seem to have captured the same page-turning excitement as previous. The book was (largely) a difficult, crawling read for me. This is a re-write (the final re-write) of his earlier works, and it seems (perhaps because of this) that a lot of the soul and attentive detail has been drained from the story - maybe it was never evident. The characters have personality and life, but their activities seem drawn out, and their reasoning cloudy (excluding Sharrow's). I feel like I never truly grasped a full image of the characters. I didn't see their physique, I saw their personalities based on what they had expressed through the dialogue. In other words, I didn't get the full picture when I read Against a Dark Background. The story-line may be an epic quest for the truth, twisted by outside influence - the Huhsz, Sad Brothers, Twins (and their hidden masters), etc - but it didn't read as well as it sounds. The thrill of the moment didn't transcend.
A lot of the flash-backs experienced by Sharrow seemed unconnected, unnecessary to the overall story. They were also very long, sometimes exceeding ten or more pages. They often didn't lead the reader to anything conclusive about the characters personality or her relations - they seemed to fill gaps that weren't ever present.
I thought ideas such as the Thrown of the Useless Kings, and the android Skave were high on the list of banks' best inventions, but the way they were moulded into the story wasn't up to scratch. Skave brought a much needed machine intelligence into the team, giving them the upper hand in places, and providing interesting analysis of situations. You could tell the android wasn't on the same level as a Culture equivalent which was cool, the balance seemed just right for the story with this character.
I might have gone into this a bit too much, almost giving it more credit than it deserves. But as you can tell, the story-line takes a lot of explaining, the ideas behind it are wild, new and complex - which is a good thing. In general though, I just didn't get a good feel from this novel. It came across as slow, with too much filler and not enough grip. The action is enthralling, but the rest (the vast majority) is someway close to a bore. I'll have to settle on 3 stars for Against a Dark Background.
PRICE: £6.89 (paperback)
AVAILABILITY: Amazon.co.uk at above price.
Thanks for reading!
Summary: If you're working your way through Banks' sci-fi collection, don't skip this, but don't expect much.