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“The Crow Road” by Iain Banks

crow road

I've read all of Iain (M.) Banks' Science Fiction novels, many of which I thought were excellent but not his non-SF. This seems to be one of his most popular non-SF books, I've heard it suggested several times that it has one of the best first lines in literature ("It was the day my Grandmother exploded.").

I thought it was a good book, it does take quite a while for it to become clear where the plot is heading but even the early stages which feel more like a series of vignettes of things that happened to various members of the McHoan family is entertaining. Prentice is an entertaining narrator, it can be frustrating as he makes a sequence of incredibly poor decisions but he does at least develop as a character as the story moves along. I also liked the flashbacks to the previous generation, particularly those following Prentice's father in his younger days, I think some of the best writing in the book comes from Kenneth McHoan's storytelling to the children. While the book's main theme is death and how people cope with it, it didn't feel like a particularly gloomy book, there is plenty of humour in here (even if some of it is a bit morbid), and while the ending may be bittersweet it at least has some hopeful elements.

I also really liked the book's portrayal of its setting. Having grown up in the Scottish Highlands I've seen plenty of fiction supposedly set in Scotland which just didn't ring true, but this felt very authentic to me (not that I was expecting anything different from Banks). Although the town of Gallanach itself where much of the book takes place is fictional I recognise a lot of places and things from the rest of the book. It's also a good portrayal of its time as well, the 'present day' in the book is now 30 years ago and some parts feel familiar (the political landscape in some ways hasn't changed that much) while others feel quite different (such as a University student like Prentice finding computers exotic and not knowing what an e-mail is).

Rating : 8 / 10


“Feersum Endjinn” by Iain M. Banks

Feersum Endjinn

The world of "Feersum Endjinn" is threatened with an apocalypse as an astronomical disaster threatens to make the Earth uninhabitable, but its characters often have different concerns. Bascule is trying to find his friend, an ant kidnapped by a giant bird. Count Sessine has just died for the last time, and wants to know why. Asura doesn't know who or what she is, but knows she has something she has to do. Chief Scientist Gadfium receives a message from an unexpected source as she tries to investigate why her government is more interested in winning a war than saving the world. Many of these things don't initially seem to have much relevance to the potential end of the world, but by the end of the book they will.

This book doesn't seem to get as much praise as Banks' better-known Culture series, but I thought it was as good as or better than most of the Culture novels. I liked the setting of a civilisation living off what a more technologically advanced civilisation had left behind, largely based in a gigantic castle built on a scale hundred of times larger than human scale. There was an interesting contrast in a society that is in many ways a feudal/medieval society but one that still has some access to high technology, including a vast and dangerous virtual reality environment which contains thousands of years of human knowledge.

It's a fairly short novel and as a result some aspects don't get explored in much detail. For example, there is more time spent on Bascule's quixotic quest to rescue his pet ant who was kidnapped by an eagle than there is on describing the methods by which the world could be saved from an impending apocalypse. I don't think this really detracts from the book, it's not really a hard-SF book so the details of how the technology works is largely irrelevant.

The characterisation is good with several interesting and likeable characters in it. Bascule is probably the best character in it, although his chapters are the hardest to read due to Bascule's narration using phonetic spelling. Reading prose where virtually every world is misspelled means that those chapters took several times longer to read than the other characters' chapters, but I think the overall effect does match Bascule's character well although I think if the entire book had been written like that I might not have made my way through. The other characters tend to be interesting as well, particularly the naive amnesiac Asura and Count Sessine's attempt to investigate his murder. At the start it is difficult to see how all the plot threads will tie together, but they do build up to one of Banks' more effective endings.

Overall, I'd say this might not quite be Banks' best novel, but it's still a very good read.

Rating : 9 / 10