Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

 Whatever you may say about Iain Banks, he most certainly can weave a compelling tale, whether it's technically science fiction or not, and Inversions seems to me to be only marginally SF. The only reason why I even think that is that one of the main characters in one of the two intertwined tales in this book appears to be someone from an advanced culture, slumming for some odd reason on a backward and barbarian feudal and feuding planet.

And the reason I say that this character, called the Doctor, a female physician, a thing unheard of in this male dominated realm, is from an advanced culture, is that she introduces modern methods of treating injury and illness into the middle of a medical wasteland of leeches and blaming diseases on ill humors. She combines disinfecting and bandaging wounds with potions and powders made from local herbs, demonstrating a knowledge of herbalism and biochemistry in a low tech area.

The doctor has ostensible journeyed from the faraway land of Delchen and ended up in the service of a reasonably good king. Her tale is told from the point of view of her apprentice, Oelph, who has also been assigned to spy on her and report to an unidentified noble in the court of the king. Intrigues swirl around the Doctor and Oelph, as various nobles conspire to either reduce her influence on the king or remove her from the kingdom entirely. I thought perhaps that she was sent from some agency of The Culture to influence the outcome of the geopolitics on this particular planet, but her motivations turn out to be something entirely different, in the end.

The second thread in the warp and weft of Inversions is the tale of DeWar, a bodyguard to The Protector, a general who committed regicide in a nearby kingdom, and brought a slightly better version of rule to that land. DeWar also seems that he may be from someplace far away. His origin and antecedents are hidden, and he seems to be far too competent at his task to have sprung from this culture.

DeWar commits the deadly sin of falling in love with an older concubine, who has fallen into a bit of disfavor with the Protector after she gained a withered arm while throwing herself in front of an assassin's blade. Rather short-sighted of the Protector to scorn her in favor of air-headed nubile youngsters, but that's a ruler for you, right? Nothing obviously inappropriate occurs between DeWar and the concubine, but it becomes obvious to both of them that there's more to their feelings for one another than just their mutual devotion to the Protector.

Again, lots of plots and counterplots swirl around the palace, and DeWar has no idea if there is anyone whom he can truly trust. A great surprise ending wraps this tale up nicely in the end.

As I said, not exactly science fiction, but gripping none the less.

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