(A prayer for Z.) Who
will sit in your Chair but you?
You? (A poem by Sma.)
I can't say I didn't see that coming, since well...I did. Still, surprise in a plot twist is over rated; dramatic irony, right? So here is the premise of this book: Zakalwe is a Great Soldier; Sma is a poet. When the Culture needs a small empire knocked over to start a cascade that will eventually lead to integration with their utopia, they send the Great Poet Sma to go convince him to take up arms again...& since Zakalwe has a dark past, & a need to win, well...he does. He goes where they ask him to go & he fights. Sometimes he fights for the winning side, sometimes the losing side. Sometimes he fights for the good guys, sometimes the bad guys. He just does what the Minds of the Culture
The format is told in alternating chapters-- the frame sequence, of a particular mission of Zakalwe's, interpolated with images of his past: old wars, older wars, his childhood, wars of his childhood, old loves, old losses, clever escapes, lucky scrapes. The switching works against some of Bank's strengths; notably, he drags you in, & keeps you turning pages. Jumping from Clever Winning Zakalwe to Dying In the Dirt Zakalwe is jarring, but I get it. You don't need to make your novel easy to read for it to be good. So you read, & sometimes the vignettes have a point, or a bittersweet moment worth saving, or...an anecdote. Actually, the latter, the anecdotes without denouement, really work on selling his character. You see him not at the nadir or the zenith-- or rather that the peaks & depths are what define him. & of course, you wonder & puzzle at just what could be so terrible, what black dark is in his past. Banks doesn't flinch from raw nerves or bad news-- rape isn't a fictional "megadrama" in the real world & it isn't in the Culture novels-- it is a sad reality of too many people's lives. Same goes for death, ill-intentioned or accidental. Terrible things happen. So what could be so terrible? Well sure, I figured it out.
A last point; I'm not sold on all of Iain Bank's "sci-fi" gobbledygook names, but I thought this time he really got spot on "Cheradenine Zakalwe" & "Darckle" I really liked. Though neither of them are Culture names, oddly. In the Culture, really only the Minds have names that make sense to me.