60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2000
_Inversions_ is actually not one, but two books.
I'm not saying that because it goes back and forth from two different narratives that mirror each other. I'm saying that because it is, really, two different books.
If you've read the Culture novels (_Consider Phlebas_, _The Player of Games_, _Use of Weapons_), you'll understand things differently than if you haven't.
If you've read the Culture novels, it will be pure science-fiction. If you haven't, it will be pure medieval fantasy. Anyway, it will be a very enjoyable read.
That's Iain M. Banks for you.
People argue whether this is a Culture novel or not. Simply put, it is. And no, that's not a spoiler. It's a very obvious Culture novel -- only without the space opera pyrotechnics.
If you are new to Iain M. Banks, this is as good a place to start as any. If you have access to the other Culture novels, though, I'd suggest starting with them. Any will do. But do read them, Banks is a genius.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Okay, it's not Banks' best book, although it might be his best writing, and it's not his best plot, although it might be his trickiest. But either way, this is a fine addition to the literature of The Culture.
If you have read as far as this, you already know that there is something called "The Culture," and that is it a fantasically developed, ultra-powerful, galaxy wide entity which, in the name of Good, meddles in the affairs of other, more primitive societies, through its "Special Circumstances" arm. There are, shall we say, signs that "Special Circumstances" is at work on the multiply-sunned, multiply-mooned world on which this story takes place.
And this is a Culture novel, make no mistake, but this time we see Special Circumstances from the other side, most poignantly from the eyes of Oelph, the apprentice to and spy upon the co-protagonist, Dr. Vossil. Dr. Vossil is a woman and a foreigner in what is a deeply misogynistic, seriously provincial society. Through her surprising talents as a healer, she has become the personal physician to a king. Her co-protagonist is DeWar, the personal bodyguard to a regicide and usurper in another kingdom. Both "kingdoms" are fragments of a larger, even sicker culture that was destroyed not long before the events of this story when rocks fells from the sky. Hmm...
The stories of DeWar and Dr. Vossil are intertwined, but this is a Banks novel and you have to read carefuly to understand exactly how and why. The "Inversions" of the title are present at many levels, just as the story operates at many levels. Admire, if you will, the way the drawing of the dagger inverts at the start of each chapter. Listen carefully to the stories that DeWar tells Lattens, the child and heir of the man DeWar tries to protect. Watch as DeWar and Lattens play at war with catapaults and rocks. Try, if you can, to pick out who will betray whom, and when, and why. Try to decide who is the evil, scheming tyrant and who is Good. And try to decide whether, for once, Special Circumstances has actually done some good...
As always, Banks leaves us with a morally ambiguous ending, although in this case the ambiguity is at many levels.
An excellent, thought-provoking book. You don't have to know a thing about The Culture to enjoy it, but if you have read, say, "Use of Weapons," it will add some savor.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2000
This is a subtler work than Banks' earlier "Culture" novels, and may be his best one yet. Regrettably, the very subtlety and understatement that makes this such a good book may narrow its appeal. You have to think about this book. For instance, one of the reviewers (Booklist) clearly either didn't read, or failed to understand what he was reading. Whatever Dr. Vossil and DeWar's relationship may have been, they were most assuredly not "cooperating".
For the benefit of those who haven't read the book, I don't want to give away too much. However, one of the questions that's been kicked around on the Iain Banks newsgroup is which of the two is the starry-eyed idealist, and which is a hard-eyed pragmatist.
My view? --If special circumstances demand that it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight, if you send in Madame Doctor.
No, this is not just a "medieval fantasy". It's a thought-provoking book about what it means to "do good", and how little latitude you have to help people in a cruel world. If it matters to you, this IS science fiction, and it IS a "Culture" book.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2005
I think when it comes down to it, we say that we like when authors don't spell everything out and leave gaps for the reader to puzzle out, but in the end we're lazy and would prefer that someone just tell us what's going on. Iain Banks, of course, doesn't care what we want, so he goes and tells us a story that appears to be about one thing and is really about something else, except it's hard to tell because the story is being told by narrators who aren't in on the whole thing. Or if they are, they're lying about it. This time out, Banks is telling two stories here set on the same world. One involves Vossil, a doctor from a foreign land who is assigned to be the king's personal physician, and the other features DeWar, who is the personal bodyguard to a man who would rule a slice of land. The two stories alternate and barely connect, and the main characters never meet (at least in the context of the tale) but as you read it's clear that there are connections present that just aren't obvious. The doctor's story is narrated by her assistant, a person who is himself lying to her in that he's really a spy for one of the king's men. DeWar's story is more a third-person narration, but there's more going on than it seems. More than anything else, this book seems at first glance to be the most conventional of all his books, even the ones that he writes as the M-less Iain Banks. The wacky antics of the Culture and the wild flights of dark imagination that are the hallmarks of his SF writing don't really seem to be present here, replaced with a more fantasy based plot, with people in castles and horses and whatnot plotting to kill each other without making it seem like they are. It's a genuine feudal society here, and there's no place for spaceships and ray guns and people switching gender at the drop of a hat. And yet, if you've read other Culture novels it's clear that there is something else going on, in some of the oddities about the doctor and the bodyguard, in a scattered incident that shouldn't make sense under any context. Is the story DeWar tells the kid just a story, or he is giving everything away? Are all the things that happen in the story just accidents or coincidence, or is there some kind of plan behind them all? Banks doesn't ask these questions, preferring to let his narrators speak for him and he reminds us that once again, even though someone is telling us the story, he's under no obligation to tell us the truth. He forces us to read and read again and reconsider what we think we know, constantly reassessing what we've already been told with new information and seeing if the conclusions we draw are any different. Everything that happens in the story seems to happen for a purpose, I get the sense that the outcome of the tale, of both tales, has proven someone wrong and proven someone else right. But who and why was there conflict in the first place? The story isn't satisifying if you want a neat ending with everything explained and part of me did want a little more explanation, if only to see if the things I had speculated on were actually correct. But Banks puts us right in the perspective of the narrators and the people of this backwards world, giving us the same starting points as them. They're clueless as to what's going on and maybe we aren't as clueless but it's not too far off. It's a marvel of subtle writing and shows that even when he's not telling us anything, he's revealing more than we realize. While the structure isn't as outwardly bizarre or convoluted as some of his other novels, this one requires just as much thought to finally unwrap all the wrinkles. Whether people will think it's worth such effort is entirely their call. Entertaining when read separate from his oeuvre but taking on a new perspective when looked at against what he's already written, this one is probably for the experienced Banks readers. But even so, if it's only one of his books you can find, it's still worth a look.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2000
After the rather disappointing "A Song of Stone", his last novel to be released in the USA, Iain Banks has finally returned to this side of the Atlantic with another of his more typically engaging and complex narratives. If you have read Banks' earlier science fiction novels that elaborate Culture themes, you should immediately recognize and appreciate the subtle introduction of highly advanced and evolved Culture philosophy and technology to the low tech setting of this book. Chapters alternate between the twin tales of two seemingly unconnected protagonists, who reside in different warring nations on an alien planet with double suns. One state is ruled by a Cromwell-like regicide, the other by a moderately progressive monarch. Indeed, the lives of the two main characters, one a resented, yet capable female physician to the king, and the other a tough, enigmatic bodyguard to the protector, were once closely intertwined when they were younger and lived on an idyllic Culture world together, as one of the bodyguard's stories-within-the-story reveals. Yet on this somewhat primitive and brutal planet inhabited by fractious factions in a largely pre-mechanized stage of development, societies are composed of either wealthy and privileged nobles or wretched peasants in abject squalor, side by side. The two Culture exiles each experience their separate exotic adventures unknown to each other, in parallel but always different, "inverted" realities, which are nonetheless still obliquely interrelated. All in all quite satisfying, if edgy, conclusions to the tales of both main characters are reached, as loose ends are neatly tied up and ambiguities resolved for the careful reader. Fans of Banks will be well pleased with this refreshing and unique variation on familiar motifs.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2000
Being an Iain M Banks' work, the reader naturally expects this to be a further episode of the Culture sci-fi series. At first sight however, Inversions appears to be a straightforward tale of love, war and Machiavellian intrigue set in a brutal medieval environment. The story unfolds in separate but strangely complimentary alternate instalments, describing the adventures of the beautiful, vastly knowledgeable but mysteriously other-worldly Dr. Vosill and the powerful and lethal but profoundly sensitive bodyguard DeWar. The plot is further complicated by the questionable veracity of the narrator. Thus we have stories within stories, and when DeWar starts speaking in allegories things become decidedly complex! After each chunk of story I found myself speculating on whether to take the narrative at face value or dredge for hidden depths. Sometimes I felt obliged to revisit earlier chapters in case I'd missed a clue, sometimes a flash of realisation would hit me hours later. There are tantalising but elusive echoes of scenes from earlier IMB novels and believe me, you will get far more from Inversions if you have also read Consider Phlebus, Player of Games, State of the Art and Use of Weapons. So what drove DeWar's obsession with the fables about the fantasy land? Who were Sechroom and Hiliti? Was Vosill a Culture dilettante, covert ambassador, or simply a love-struck foreigner? Was sorcery, sheer chance or a miniature Culture self-defence drone the architect of the astonishing scenes that led to Oelph's and Vosill's salvation in the torture chamber? Which of the alternative endings is most plausible or satisfying? IMB forces the reader to think long and hard about these conundrums and much more. Inversions is never an easy read, demanding much from the reader, lest the subtle undercurrents essential to a comprehensible conclusion be overlooked. If, however you possess an adventurous and inquisitive spirit, I am sure you, like I, will find Inversions immensely satisfying.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2000
The science fiction novels of Iain M. Banks have had a remarkable impact on the field in general. Most especially, the somewhat glib, sardonic voice that he uses narratively. This voice is present in this novel as much as any other of his, and is quite entertaining. If you are NOT an Iain Banks Fan waiting for the book with bated breath-- skip to the next paragraph (or better yet, pick up one of his earlier novels so you can get a perspective into which to place this novel: I don't think this one is a good starting point for his storyworld). Right. Now that we've gotten rid of the new folks-- This book is clever as all hell. Just like Banks always is. I picked up a British hardcover back in '98, and devoured it. I was left somewhat unimpressed, and re-read the Culture novels back-to-back-to-back so I could get a dose of what I was missing. After doing that, I realized exactly what Inversions was about. There are a few clues in this novel as to what's going on- below the surface, if you will.
I would strongly recommend rereading State of the Art or Use of Weapons to get the most out of this book. This really isn't one of his best standalone novels; I'd seriously refer the new Banks reader to one of his older ones- they are more accessible, while this novel assumes a level of familiarity with the storyworld which a new reader simply won't have. Then again- when you're a bestselling author in your own country in two genres, you can probably get away with vanity stunts like that.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2004
An unusual `Culture' novel, and I wonder if some of the pleasures for the reader have been sacrificed to Banks' ingenious if perhaps less satisfying structure.
We have the standard covert interplay between the vastly technologically superior, superlatively `civilised' culture, and backwards societies still mired in greedy, patriarchal and militaristic abuses of human rights. But this time we see it from the perspective of people within the latter society who only have hints of the culture (hints, of course, that resonate far more strongly for those of us who have read other culture novels!).
Thus, in one sense if read alone it's not SF at all (despite the differentiating `M.' appearing in the author's name). There's only one (crucial) incident (OK, perhaps two) where the culture is forced to reveal itself, but, as the medieval-type narrator says, he just recounts, and doesn't even begin to speculate. I wonder if someone who hadn't read any other Banks would assume this was a fantasy novel, and that the good Doctor Vossill was actually a sorceress. I think Banks would enjoy this perception, putting the reader in the place of his old world characters.
There's plenty of fooling with the narrator, with stories in stories (DeWar's Hiliti and Sechroom, Perrund's incomplete tragic personal history), and Oelph as eye-witness forced to speculate (or not) on incidents he can't explain. Indeed, Banks highlights his teasing of the reader to put together the clues for themselves by interspersing (inverting, if you like) the two inter-related main stories with every second chapter being entitled `The Doctor' or `The Bodyguard'. There is some pleasure in this, but I'm still unsure whether it's too clever for its own good (or perhaps just for *my* own good). My favourite culture novel, The Use of Weapons, likewise leaves the reader to fill in gaps (in that case around an odd non-chronological structure), but I found the individual chapters there more compelling. The climax, too, in both books cleverly forces us to reconsider much that's gone before. Very much a `win' for the ladies, with poor old DeWar, as he's been warned from the start, so busily trying to protect the `Protector' that he loses sight of the bigger game. [Spoiler warning] And just how deep is our missionary-soldier Doctor working: somehow her friends all prosper to the happiest of endings while her foes all die (and often from the sort of poison one with her chemical skills could provide - including the sort applied to Lattens' pacifier) and the realm moves upward to greater welfare and egalitarian government (very Confucian in outlook: get the king straightened out and everything else will come good). I'm not quite so sure why DeWar was so desperate to protect UrLeyn: was the idea for Hiliti and Sechroom to pick one backwater dictator each and see who could drag these peasants towards enlightenment first?
There are plenty of standard culture resonances here, hopefully facing the educated and relatively fabulously wealthy 1st world reader with his similar towering relation to those still essentially centuries behind in living standards and freedom in the 3rd world. How do we interact? What are our obligations? What is our best course? Banks doesn't eulogise the noble savage either - his bleak picture of life in a medieval world cries out for rescue for the neglect, abuse and even torture of innocents.
So, pertinent themes, likeable characters, clever structure, powerfully surprising and plausible climax ... but I wasn't nearly as drawn in to this story as I am used to with Banks - I felt more distant than usual. Moreover I didn't relish the writing style this time - perhaps because so much of it was done as the character Oelph - although the `Bodyguard' narrative was generally even less gripping. Banks can be good, even great, but I feel this book is more a curiosity for the fans than something I recommend stand alone. Indeed, I wouldn't recommend it to someone who hadn't read some of his other books for fear that on this impression they'd miss out on some really excellent books.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2001
This was the first Banks novel I read, and I specifically took it with the intention of not reading a Culture novel, as I have heard of the reputation of the Culture novels and wanted to start with a normal Banks novel instead. Needless to say that I ended up being very impressed with Banks when I finished. (as I expected I would be, if only from his reputation)
But that said, certain things about Inversions bugged me. The book left me unfulfilled for one thing, for too much went unexplained at the end. Of course, the reader could make up his own mind about what truly expired, but still.... Plus there was the little matter of that strange dagger...
Then I read the reviews on Amazon and understood the significance of "the smaller things" (relating to the Culture) in Inversions. It was almost like an epiphany. My fellow reviewers are right: You can start with Inversions but it is preferable to read another Culture novel first. The book will just mean so much more. It is however, still a good read for a non-Banks reader who's just looking for a good SF novel to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2002
Wonderful wonderful wonderful. Iain Banks has to be one of the best sci-fi authors at this time. I would not suggest reading this as your first 'Culture' novel (try 'Player of Games' or 'Look to Windward') but this is a fantastically refreshing attempt at dealing with the other side (or the recieving end) of the Cultures main pre-occupation - how to deal with developing worlds and civilizations.
Its also a love story and a classic romp in a pseudo-medieval setting.