The war is ending, perhaps ended. For the castle and its occupants the troubles are just beginning. Armed gangs roam a lawless land where each farm and house supports a column of dark smoke. Taking to the roads with the other refugees, anonymous in their raggedness, seems safer than remaining in the ancient keep. However, the lieutenant of an outlaw band has other ideas and the castle becomes the focus for a dangerous game of desire, deceit and death.
Iain Banks' masterly novel reveals his unique ability to combine gripping narrative with a relentlessly voyaging imagination. The narrative technique and sheer brio of A SONG OF STONE reveal a great novelist at the height of his powers.
"This could be any place or time," observes the narrator of this near-future fable, summing up the universality of its antiwar sentiments. Although vague in the details of geography and history, Banks's latest U.S. release (after Excession) is sharp and perceptive in its philosophical exploration of the dehumanizing potential of armed conflict. Set in a Brechtian landscape of revolution and depleted resources, it follows the tribulations of Abel, an aristocrat forced to billet Lieutenant Lute and her guerrilla army in his castle. Initially, the two treat each other with a strained civility that allows Abel to gloat secretly at the profane hordes who "commonise... what should be free from vulgar threat." As the battle draws threateningly nearer, the pretense of mutual respect dissolves and Abel finds the increasingly barbaric behavior of his captors resonating with a savagery in his own soul. Like J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, Banks is a visionary whose depictions of the strange forms morality, politics and social relationships assume under the pressure of extreme circumstances fall almost by default into the realm of science fiction and horror. His impeccable prose undulates with a poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror. In less skilled hands, Abel's reluctant acknowledgment of his class's complicity in the despoliation of the country might have been just another war-is-hell story. Banks makes it the fulcrum of an emotionally intense odyssey of self-revelation. FYI: Simon & Schuster will simultaneously reissue Banks's first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), in trade paper.
Possibly the most soul destroying book Banks has ever written - what was going on in his mind when he wrote this I don't think I want to know. Style wise it's his usual good quality, but there is nothing even remotely uplifting or hopeful. I felt truly depressed when I was finished - maximum points for accessing my emotions, but these were some I really didn't want to get in touch with.