Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I wish I could give Use of Weapons more stars and the appreciation some people are able to heap upon it. I understand where they’re coming from, but I just wasn’t able to focus enough on some of the details of this novel to grasp it. I need to read it again—and probably try reading the Roman numeral chapters backwards, since I didn’t realize they were chronologically reversed—to appreciate it more. For now, though, all I can say is that this is a thorough book. Iain M Banks demonstrates a versatility that would make a trained singer weep.
See, I liked The Player of Games because it had a strong main character I could enjoy. I needed that, because the Culture’s defining characteristic is a kind of aggressive, generic facelessness: the Minds and even the citizens, to some extent, are interchangeable. No one individual is really essential to the operation; most people don’t really make a difference, because everything is run behind the scenes by the machines. So having that one, exceptional person around as an anchor can really help.
Neither of the main characters really do that for me in Use of Weapons. We don’t spend that much time with Sma once the main plot of the novel kicks off. She sets up the plot and comes along for the ride, but then we follow Zakalwe—and he’s something else entirely. Without spoiling the magnificent twist at the end, Zakalwe is not who we think he is, and probably not who he thinks he is either. In him, Banks has created such a naughty, knotty, complicated creature. He still doesn’t quite capture my attention the way Gurgeh did, but I can admire what Banks does with Zakalwe’s psychology.
Not of the Culture directly, Zakalwe comes to work for them after finishing his own private little war. He is good at war—so good it scares people, including him. He becomes a skilled member of Special Circumstances, the branch of the Culture’s Contact division that cleans up messes (or creates them). Then, after a mission goes awry, he decides to retire by going AWOL. Now Sma has been sent to retrieve him, because he’s the only one who can help defuse war brewing in another star cluster.
The politics are a little byzantine, and there’s that constant sense, as with most Culture novels, that they don’t really matter. If the cluster goes to war … well, that won’t harm the Culture. We’re left to accept that the Culture just likes to meddle and go with it. What this part of the story does is set up a contrast between the way Zakalwe is proceeding now and the way he has operated in the past, as revealed in the flashback chapters with those descending Roman numerals.
I don’t regret reading the entire book from front to back the first time through. After all, Banks could have put the last chapter with Roman numerals (which, chronologically speaking, is the first) at the front of the book. He chose not to. So there’s something to be said for playing along and experiencing it this way, even if the narrative itself makes a little more sense going the other way around.
Use of Weapons, as the name implies, paints us a picture of the various ways to deploy force and manipulate people into achieving one’s ends. The weapons here include not just ordinance but also individuals—those in armies, and the big thinkers at the top, such as Zakalwe, who come up with ways to get the armies killed. There are numerous scenes throughout the book that emphasize Zakalwe’s status as a weapon, a kind of loaded pistol that is always threatening to go off.
I guess my main issue with this book is that I eternally felt like it hadn’t actually begun—and then it was over. I kept turning the page, waiting for the main plot to happen and something interesting to occur, and I was never quite satisfied. There are some great moments—such as the chapter when Zakalwe rescues Tsoldrin Beychae only for their means of escape to be shot down—where I enjoyed the scene for what it was. Overall, however, Use of Weapons just feels very flat as a narrative, and that distracted me.
I’d like to re-read it one day and give it another hearing. While I can honestly say I enjoyed it this time around, it didn’t quite leave me with the impression it has left others.