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A Song of Stone - Iain Banks

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Author: Iain Banks / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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    6 Reviews
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      27.04.2010 19:50
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      Not for everyone, but a rewarding read if you enjoy the style

      'Song of Stone' definitely reads like one of Banks' forays into the world of the weird, wonderful and abstract, much like 'The Bridge.' The story follows the tale of a few individuals embroiled in a war, which we never really find out the reason for, and their struggles both against each other and to cope with the loss of their home, the castle.

      The action unfolds from the viewpoint of Abel, who is definitely one of Banks' least charming characters. Even through the more humane stories concerning his childhood and personal relationships, he remains a pompous, irritating figure with whom it is almost impossible to relate. The unashamedly narrow viewpoint can sometimes be frustrating, particularly concerning the relationship with his lover, who is presented as a dozy entirely personality-free character. It makes their relationship seem entirely farcical and to some extent, like it only exists in the book for the shock value of some of the sex scenes.

      However, the unusually detached viewpoint does have its merits. Abel's fatalistic attitude and propensity to waxing lyrical help to capture the atmosphere of despair brilliantly. The relentless misery is never contrasted with any humour which definitely feels true to the 'mud and madness' of the wartime setting but does mean the book feels one-dimensional in places.

      The draw of this book lies in the strength of Banks' prose which is often more similar to poetry and how well the grim atmosphere is captured. The lack of explanation as to what is happening at the beginning of the book and the mysteries of all the characters, the Lieutenant in particular, definitely make it a compelling read despite the slow start.

      However, the book is lacking much of Banks' usual charm. All the mystery and tension that is built up so brilliantly at the beginning of the book falls flat when nothing is ever resolved and the 'terrible secret' ends up being something trite and unmemorable.

      If you can enjoy a book simply for fantastic use of language and atmosphere, then 'Song of Stone' is most definitely worth a read. However, if strong plotline and good characterisation are what you enjoy, then it fails to deliver on both accounts. The book feels like a whimsical exploration of the despair and destructive nature of humanity rather than a solid novel.

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      11.12.2003 05:33
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      After they finished reading my other Iain Banks Review a "friend" passed me this novel to Review.. hmmm, so without further ado: A Song of Stone is one of Iain Banks' more mainstream novels, but like a number of his other non-genre works, there is much here of interest for the SF fan. In this latest offering there is a Banksian take on a subject very reminiscent of J G Ballard, of a society coming apart at the seams, falling under the weight of its own idiocies. This is a story without a definite place in space or time. The setting seems relatively modern, though it could be any time since the thirties, and almost any European, or at least European settled, country in the world. Wherever and whenever it is, it represents a nation in collapse. The countryside is filled with refugees from an unremarked upon war, probably civil, with small forces of soldiers intent on following their own agendas. The uncertainty of time and place is matched by that of the characters, who are known only by their first names, or by nicknames in the case of the soldiers. Two themes run through the book. The first concerns the relationship between an aristocratic couple, Abel and Morgan, owners of the castle that acts as the focal point of the novel. Banks parcels out information about the past via Abel (acting as narrator) reflecting on his life, and gradually unveiling the truth about the pair's strange love affair, slowly uncovering the twisted and destructive decadence at the heart of the castle. Against that is opposed the simpler damage wrought by the soldiers indulging themselves in the food and prolific wine available in the castle while they have the chance. Almost as a by-product the troop causes a slow deconstruction of the castle's historical contents, the building's inhabitants and finally the place itself. The twin themes continue in the oppositions in the novel. Between Abel and the female Lieutenant leading th
      e soldiers there is a war of words, as Abel sullenly accedes to the Lieutenant's demands, and then has to cooperate as she begins using the castle as a centre for military operations in the surrounding district, giving of his local knowledge as demanded. Alongside that, there is the closeness that develops between the female officer and Morgan, who becomes almost a talisman for the troop. This tension makes Abel the butt of taunts and cruel practical jokes by the soldiers, something the Lieutenant makes no effort to control and which has disastrous consequences. Banks' writing throughout alternates between the spare and the lush. He seems to hit a 'purple prose' button on his word processor at the start of each chapter, revelling in short orgies of description, then throttling back for the main business of sculpting his plot out of cold hard stone. Here is another contrast in the book, between the richness of his descriptive prose and the grittiness of his writing about the troop as they go about their business. The writing seems to echo the dichotomy between the central characters -- the colourful but fading aristocrats against the sharp focus of the Lieutenant, whose edges slowly erode as she is drawn in by Abel and Morgan. She takes on some of their colour only to discover the deadly decay that such a gift brings with it. A Song of Stone is a hard book to like unreservedly. Its underlying pessimism, its lack of a central character that one can readily empathise with (Abel as narrator quickly establishes himself as someone you want to distance yourself from), and its rootless, timeless nature make the book a difficult one to enthuse about. But having said that, Banks works his normal magic from this unlikely material and draws the reader in despite everything, proving once again what a master storyteller he has become.

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        15.07.2001 04:15
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        I've read every Iain (M) Banks title I've ever picked up almost without a break - even Feersum Enjinn - until I reached this one. One thing you can say for Banks is that his stories are page-turners before anything. You just can't resist reading them. Well, I can't anyway. Despite this, after a bit of reflection it is possible to argue that his stories are remarkably similar. Does a ruined castle seem familiar? If so, what about a strong military woman, some serious weapons, a bit of implied pervy stuff, a bizarre secret and a vignette of ruined grandeur caught up in a pointless war? Yes? Up to now, these recurring themes really have not been a bad thing - the stories are too good. In ‘Excession’ did you ever stop and wonder why the action had to take place in a stone tower… even on board a spaceship? Of course you didn’t. In Song of Stone, however, things are a bit different. These familiar elements seem to be trooping out rather languidly to provide a setting for a half-hearted attempt to entertain. Without the all-conquering storyline and action the bits don’t fit. I must confess that I only read slightly more than half of the book, and gave up. Unusual for any book. All the ingredients above listed are there and more, but the formula did not deliver the goods. I just wondered what the evil secret was, and kept wanting to look at the last page to find out. Was she a he? Or was he a she? Or something else? As for all the flashbacks of nasty things in the woodshed, well, I just couldnt care in the end. The pace was slack, the characters were dull, the connections too loose. There were some great scenes, of course, and a few set-pieces of mainly military interest which were almost worth reading the rest for. Banks cannot be beaten in these realms - do you ever pick up 'Player of Games' and read the just final battle? You know what I mean. But it’s not enough. Banks is great R
        11; I never really thought to dissect his works until I read ‘Song of Stone’. Now I’ve seen under the bonnet, I think some of the magic is gone from all of them. Nothing is worth that. So don’t read this book – for the sake of the others you’ve already read, and those yet to come.

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          01.06.2001 00:16
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          I have to praise the style in which the book is written. It must have taken a lot of patience, however, I couldn't stand it the book. I don't know what put me off but something did. This isn't the first book I have read by Iain Banks. It is the first I didn't like though. I had to read it all in one go because I knew I'd never pick it up again otherwise. This isn't a book for the faint hearted there are some explicit descriptions of rather preverse sexual acts and violence. There is a questionable relationship between Morgan and the man who narrates the story. The book is simply about a European country in the grip of war. It could be set just about any time since the invention of cars and asthma inhalers! The man who narrates the story has fled the war with Morgan hoping to save his castle, and is forced to return almost immediately when they meet with a Leiutenant who keeps them prisoner there. The story is quite interesting I suppose, but there was still something.... As for recommending it, I wish I could leave that blank. I would recommend it because the style is amazing, but not for any other reason!

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            26.02.2001 00:45
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            I'm a fan of Iain Banks book and read all his non science-fiction offerings, but this is probably the poorest one to date. Usually his books command your attention and you end up reading for hours this one took forever to finish. Whilst it has got good bits, in the main this is a dull book in which I didn't really care what happened to the characters. The story beginning in the midst of a civil war with the trails of refugees leaving they're homes for safer climes. However our main character (whose name escapes me) and party are stopped by one (small) faction who realise they are the owners of a castle and force them to go back. The rest of story is set in and around the castle which is occupied by the owners and the said faction. The story focuses on the alliance and mistrust of the militrary occupiers from the owners viewpoint. The plot as far as it goes isn't bad but theres just such a feel of staticness and lack of momentum. Its going to be a book which will be collecting dust for years from my bookshelf.

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              17.07.2000 06:21
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              Iain Banks seems to have this thing where all his writings have those magical little twists and details that *make* you engrossed, and A Song Of Stone is no exception. On the surface, the story is of a couple, Abel (Banks' narrative) and Morgan, seemingly his wife; of their fleeing from a castle home during a civil/guerilla war, and their subsequent capture and use by a rag-tag army unit and their female lieutenant commander. A Song Of Stone is typical of Iain Banks, full of dark wit, imagination and intricate details. In my opinion, one of the signs of a good book is needing and wanting to re-read sections.... which this forced me to do.

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