It has been too long since a visit to Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe. Inversions has really just made me want to go back and re-read the other novels now. And I may very well just do that this summer, because why not?
For those who aren’t familiar with the premise to this one: the Culture is not mentioned by name at all in Inversions. On its surface, this is a split narrative on a pre-industrial planet. Alternating chapters follow Vosill, foreign doctor to the King Quience of Haspidus, and DeWar, bodyguard to the regicide Protector UrLeyn of Tassasen, half a continent away. The two narratives never intersect directly, but they are definitely related. And the Culture is definitely a presence, but it is one that the reader has to tease out and infer—if you haven’t read any of the other Culture novels, then you can still enjoy this story, you’ll just be missing a patina that adds a little bit more flair to that enjoyment. I’m going to address it from the point of view of a Culture fan with a lot of my analysis.
Honestly, I much preferred the Doctor’s narrative over DeWar’s, for a few reasons. First, I like that it’s narrated in first person by her assistant, Oelph, who is spying on her for an unnamed “Master”. It’s fun to see Banks filter Vosill’s extremely foreign nature through the eyes of someone native to this world. Moreover, Oelph provides us with colour commentary and opinions of his own, which is something absent from DeWar’s third person omniscient narrative. Finally, I just found Vosill’s situation—her untenable position as King Quience’s all-knowing physician, openly hated by courtiers, her careful attempts to sidestep court politics that ultimately fail because she’s too clever—much more interesting than DeWar’s. Don’t get me wrong: I liked DeWar’s story too, particularly the stories-within-the-story that provide more hints as to their involvement with the Culture and their presence on this world. And I think Inversions as a novel and a whole is made much stronger with both narratives; if this novel were solely Vosill’s portion, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much.
Certainly it’s a lot of fun to tease out the hints about the Culture’s involvement. Yet Inversions also works on its own merits as a story too. Before long I found myself drawn into the split narrative of these two countries: Tassasen recovering from the break-up of an empire and threatening to fall into civil war; Haspidus enjoying prosperity and a monarch attempting to restructure parts of his society to improve the lives of his subjects. There are two, good overlapping stories that in some ways feel very fantasy-esque yet without a lot of the trappings and tropes of fantasy that don’t exactly get in the way (because we like fantasy tropes, yes we do) but might sometimes distract from the substance of what’s happening.
Because when you get down to it, Banks isn’t telling us stories of political intrigue, backstabbing, etc. He’s telling us some very personal stories about human tragedies: families broken up during war, women who have survived terrible trauma, nobles who are blinded by their own greed and avarice. There are layers to this narrative, beneath even the hints towards the Culture, that make it a very rewarding read indeed.
If you’re trying to get into the Culture novels, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a place to start. You’ll learn nothing of the Culture universe itself, and you’ll miss the oblique references that you would otherwise enjoy if you read this later. On the other hand, Inversions can definitey stand on its own, if you go into it with the right, open mindset of a story that is more allegory than adventure.