A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
I’m slowly making my way through Iain Bank’s entire back catalogue; he was an incredibly diverse author, capable of tackling many different genres, tones and themes. A Song of Stone actually reminds me most of one of Bank’s sci-fi novels, Inversions. Both are clever, but neither are favourites.
A Song of Stone takes place in an unknown country torn apart by civil war. Abel and his lover Morgan are aristocrats fleeing their ancestral castle, when a group of bandits led by a charismatic woman known only as The Lieutenant capture them and take them back to the castle, making it their base of operations. Abel’s entire sheltered existence is shattered by The Lieutenant and her men.
If there’s one thing Iain Banks wasn’t scared of, it was tackling taboos. A Song of Stone is disturbing in many ways, with a truly complex and unpleasant relationship at its core. The narrator Abel recounts everything in the present tense, giving an unpleasant immediacy to the whole thing. Still, this is also a novel about history, and how casually history can be destroyed by the present. It descends a little bit too much into long winded philosophising for my tastes, although generally the insights themselves are beautifully expressed and highly thought provoking. There’s a bit too much of a gulf between this and the narrative however; it’s actually a really good idea for a story, but it tries a little bit too hard and that damages the central narrative.
As I said though, the actual writing itself is gorgeous. A Song of Stone is written in a self-consciously arch style, with the irreverence and humour which characterised his Culture books not in attendance. It’s frequently beautiful, but I’ve got to say I prefer the irreverence. You can tell how much fun Banks was having when he wrote like that, whereas this book seems to come from a much darker place, the same place that provided The Wasp Factory. The Wasp Factory was brilliant though and A Song of Stone cannot quite compete.
Abel is an interesting protagonist, not very likeable and difficult to trust. He’s haughty, seeing himself above the common folk who have suffered even worse than him. His treatment of the mostly silent Morgan is deeply unpleasant, reflecting inner weakness in Abel more than anything else. The real star is The Lieutenant, a fascinating character, possessed of an awareness and intelligence greater than that of her men. Unlike her soldiers who trash Abel’s castle with no thought to its grandeur, the Lieutenant understands exactly what is being done, and sanctions it. The desecration of the castle is a victory for her against those who had put themselves above her. Everything else fades in this novel behind the brilliance of the Lieutenant, and she’ll be the character I remember.