Friday, March 20, 2009

Iain M. Banks - Against A Dark Background

Iain M. Banks' Against A Dark Background is perhaps his most militaristic novel. It's heroine Lady Sharrow begins the novel living in exile. The Huhsz, a merciless religous cult, believe that the coming of the messiah cannot take place until her bloodline is ended, and Sharrow begins a long, complex and winding quest to find the last "Lazy Gun", the only prize that will buy her enough credit with the corrupt Huhsz to escape her inevitable murder by them.

Sharrow assembles a gang of friends and former comrades, who used to steal antiques and relics with her, and they begin to follow a series of increasingly bizarre clues to the location of the Lazy Gun. Several of the clues are genetic - in one case, contact with Sharrow's blood leads a local aristocrat to dance in a seemingly random way, until his heart stops. Later mapping of his dance route, reveals the next stage of the quest.

Against A Dark Background is also very concerned with technical and scientific aspects of Sharrow's career and planetary life. Detailed descriptions occur of her weapons. Here's Sharrow buying a replacement gun, a heavy duty weapon known as a HandCannon, from a shopkeeper who makes the mistake of trying to sell her a more ladylike weapon;

"And a HandCannon, with the eighty-mill silencer, five GP clips, three six-five AP/wire-flechettes clips, two bipropellant HE clips, and a Special Projectile Pack if you have one -- the one with the embedding rounds, not the signalers. I assume the night-sight on this toy is compatible?"

Being a Banks' novel though, the book isn't short on interesting social commentary and details of everyday life. Nor is it afraid of pointing out the differences in life for the adventurous Sharrow and the ordinary people of the planet who have, it seems suffered through a series of violent civil wars and religous crusades.

In the end though, the novel boils down to an exciting chase and battle. On the one side Sharrow is the last of her small band, with a loyal android for assistance. On the other, the evil and tyrannical figure who would destroy the planets way of life for good. In someways there are many cliches, but Banks does it with such stlye that he can be forgiven for this. Standing alone from the Culture novels, this is certainly not just a read for hardcore Banks' fans, but it's one that will entertain all lovers of Science Fiction.

Related Reviews

Iain M. Banks - Matter

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Francis Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages, An Archaeological History

Francis Pryor makes it clear in his introduction that this isn't intended to be either a definitive academic history, nor a social history of life in the British Isles 1000 years ago. Rather its a narrative history, which tries to bring out the general trends of the period following the departure of the Roman legions and the approximate end of the Middle Ages with the dissolution of the monastries.

Pryor's emphasis on archaeology (and indeed his breathtaking openness towards public and amateur involvement) leads him to view the period of history, very differently to those who perceive this era of time as the Dark Ages.

The most fascinating parts of the book are when Pryor looks at the buildings and other artifacts of the time. We discover a world that is constantly developing, growing and occasionally moving backwards. Foreign invaders - the Vikings and the Normans for instance bring their own changes and traditions, though, in the case of the Vikings, they are far from the destructive warriors, clad in horned helmets so beloved of Hollywood.

Pryor says that this isn't a social history. Though neither is this a history of kings and other great men. In that sense, it is also a history of change and social transformation - well worth reading if you are bored of Kings and Queens.

Related Reviews

Francis Pryor - Britain BC

Monday, March 09, 2009

Nicholas Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Everyone should have at least one favourite novel that they return to year after year. One of mine is Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea.

The novel deals with the terrors and horrors of the Atlantic conflict in World War II - specifically, the experiences of a group of tremendously inexperienced men sailing an escort ship in protection of the convoys bringing supplies to the UK from Canada and the US. In this sense, the novel is like many others that came out of the Second World War - written by men who had served in the armed services, had seen action and perhaps used the process of putting the stories down on paper, as a method of dealing with their memories.

What makes The Cruel Sea more than just a war novel, is the intensely detailed portraits of the men and women involved. You know these people intimately. You follow them as they stay up for hours on end, because the gales are so strong they can't sleep. You stand next to them on the bridge as they scan the horizon for U-boats. You're with them most painfully, as they rescue wounded sailors and desperately try to comfort dying men.

But, and this is what makes the novel truely brilliant, you are most with them when they die. No one can comprehend war who hasn't seen it. The suffering of the victims of conflict is usually reduced to numbers - 3 dead in Iraq, 2 wounded in Afghanistan. Monsarrat creates these fully rounded characters - hurt by cheating wives, worried about the coming baby, scared of the sexually transmitted disease they've contracted - and their sudden and painful death brings the reality of conflict to the reader like a slap in the face.

This isn't an anti-war novel like Johnnny Got His Gun. But it's a novel that is about the reality of war and as such, it should be read by everyone, particularly those who think war is a game, or those who can play so easily with other men's lives.

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Monsarrat - Three Corvettes