on 6 February 2014
I first read this years ago; possibly late 90s/early oos - so definitely before Amazon reviews took off! I've read a fair bit since then, but ASOS has come back to me at various times, although over the years more and more intertwined with a children's book I also vaguely remember reading about social breakdown and soliders (Noah's Castle is the nearest book I can find, but I'm still not convinced it was the one).
Banks is one of the few authors I can read over again, so, being that the general negativity towards ASOS, I thought I'd read it as a fully fledged adult.
I think I possibly enjoyed it more this time; I certainly don't have the vague, fuzzy feeling I was left with last time (or is that, quite simply, time?) The castle is, in its solemnity and final indignity, the main character in the novel: it appears to exert some power over its inhabitants and even the Lieutenant which makes them unable to leave entirely - even if it should be their destruction. Possibly the castle represents a hierarchical society which binds people even afer less physical structures have crumbled; possibly it's a physical manifestation of refuge and safety individuals can't find anywhere else.
In fact, starting this review has again made me realise how much I enjoyed the novel, but am probably in danger of slipping into an essay if I continue. And it's been many years since I wrote an essay at bedtime.
We are able to feel superior to the main character, as he appears to be the only one blind to the true extent of te ways in which society has changed.
The Lieutenant appears to be the most interesting character in the novel, althogh one wonders whether this another trick: does she only appear interesting because a. Abel wants to sleep with her and b. because she is so different to him (in some ways) and actually throws his faults into sharp relief. Is she actually the man he wants to be?
The true horror appears to be rooted in the mundane, every day life, as evidenced in Morgan's abuse as a small child. Everything Abel and Morgan do as adults appears to have been set in motion at the castle - possibly by their father.
The sense of bleak hopelessness is offset by those who never appear as the protagonists: the soldiers and the castle's workforce whose lives go on regardless of who's in charge and who's on the 'right' side. As it ever has been and ever shall be, I suppose.
on 24 July 2014
Book Review: A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
A Song of StoneA Song of Stone by Iain Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Song of Stone is Iain Banks 9th novel published in 1997, but he had already written another 8 Science Fiction novels under the name Iain M Banks, so a consistent output of almost two book a year at least over ten years.
As with most of the non-Science Fiction this book is fairly political in tone, and I read it the year of its publication in paperback. It was clear to all that this novel was speaking of the unimaginable brutality and horror which was the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. Due a split in the EU, the germans siding with their historic allies the Serbians and the rest of Europe wanting to help the Bosnian Muslims, this is the war Europe watched each night on its televisions, but did little to intervene except by its absence. The carnage and cruelty was unlike anything Europe had ever seen. Still nothing was done.
In A Song of Stone, Iain Banks reflects on the culpability of Europe by placing a similar conflict this time in his homeland which was the lowlands of Scotland. He puts the spotlight on a crumbling stately home and its useless over educated but under skilled aristocratic yet likeable owners, and then throws them in the way of pure cruelty.
I won't say much about the story, except that it is horrific in its slow paced incremental daily increase in needless violence. the kind of which only goes unchecked when all forms of states have evaporated, and in the end this small castle and its occupants come to represent the entire state of Bosnia, and their cruel needless suffering similarly.
It's hard to recommend this book, Iain Banks is, as always, creative, and the inventive horror stays with you long after you have closed the pages.
Still once you start its unput-downable. You have been warned.
on 9 August 2011
I've read this book so many times over the years and I'm astonished at the negative reviews on here.
Yes it's a bleak future vision but it's much, much more than that.
Superficially it may be an apocalyptic tale of a lawless land overrun by marauding private militia but the real themes are about the relationship between the narrator and his castle and all who have dwelt there.
I choose my words carefully as one of the fascinating puzzles of the novel is exactly what the relationship between him and the woman of the house is. The relationship that develops between her and the "lieutenant" of the occupying soldiers is subtly and cleverly drawn.
I'm a big fan of Iain Banks but without doubt Song of Stone is among my favourites of his many books. 100% recommended.
on 12 November 2002
This is a difficult book to read. There's something hard in the first person narration with every action and description firmly and coldly played out. The narration is intense but has a strange lyrical quality, one of the main reasons that I managed to stay with the book. The lead character is not a person the reader would easily understand or get to grips with. The Song of Stone reminded me a lot of Canal Dreams, another Iain Banks book, which includes a similar situation of invaders attacking but with that book, there was a different sense of the main character wanting to be freed from her isolation. This is unlike The Song of Stone which is heavily isolated and extremely cold. Still worth a read though not my favourite of his books.
on 24 May 2014
I’m glad I left it a few days after finishing A Song of Stone before writing a review as it’s grown on me since I put it down. In part, that’s because it tackles big questions about identity and the nature of civilization, which are not easily considered while still reading the narrative; in part, it’s because the stylized and complex – sometimes almost poetic – language can get in the way of both the story and the ideas beneath it.
The setting is the aftermath of a brutally destructive war. Society has totally broken down. There is neither civil nor military government, no occupying forces and no army command, just survivors: refugees and armed bands. Against that backdrop, we meet the three central characters, an aristocrat and his lover (a relationship strongly implied to be incestuous), who have left their castle to join the tide of refugees, and the female lieutenant who, with her platoon/gang of men, turns them round and returns them to it. The castle itself is in no small way the fourth character.
What develops is a tale of how thin the veneer of civilization is, what the nature of it comprises and what is left when it's stripped away. It’s also about the relationships between the four characters – three human and one stone – and how they develop during the occupation. I’m not going to say much about the storyline as I don’t want to give too much away.
What is worth mentioning is the way in which the story’s told. It’s written using first-, second- and third-person, with the man narrating his own story and telling it to his lover (though in using ‘you’, it was unclear to me for a while whether or not he was directly addressing the reader). He is not a likeable person, indeed, none of them are, but he is believable. In some ways, it’s ironic that it’s written in the first person as his sense of detachment is so great that in most respects he might as well be an impassive observer. There is something of a dreamlike quality to it all and it’s extremely well written, both for what’s implied but not stated and for the subtle way in which the relationships between those at the heart of the story is drawn and develops.
Apart from the three central characters, the rest remain interchangeably anonymous and characterless. I think that's deliberate, emphasising the dehumanised situation but it’s another way in which it’s difficult to engage with them.
A bigger criticism I had was that in making the setting so bleak and dystopian, where people are having to survive purely off the fat of the land, what future can any of them have once that fat is exhausted or destroyed – as it soon must be in the circumstances – irrespective of whether or not they survive within this particular story? If none, why should we care? (But then, perhaps this is one reason the characters are unlikable to begin with: we’re not supposed to care).
Is it a good book? I’m not sure to be honest. It’s provoking, probing, beautifully if at times irritatingly written, and raises profound questions about the nature of humanity, society and civilization. I’m glad I’ve read it once but don’t think I’d read it again.
A Song of Stone tends to be the one Iain Banks novel that even his most vociferous admirers dislike. Some take offence at the curious first-person narration. Others dislike the unremitting bleakness (after all A Song of Stone makes The Wasp Factory look like a sunlit afternoon stroll in the park). The violence, peculiar relationships and the generally unsympathetic nature of all the main characters can also, quite legitimately, provide causes for disgust and yet, for all that, I think A Song of Stone may be one of the best and most compelling books Banks ever wrote.
The book begins with the narrator, Abel, trying to flee his castle as civil war rages in the lands around the estate. Escape, however, proves impossible and he is forced to return to the stone walls of his home by a young Lieutenant and her gang of lawless soldiers. Once back at the castle uneasy alliances are formed; life stories are swapped and strange relationships develop between the central characters. The whole atmosphere is one of mistrust and unease all intertwined with queasy and largely unstated desires and the sense that one well-aimed shell, or one successful raid by the opposing forces could leave them all embracing death at any moment. Something about this set-up of death raging outside the castle walls and a last throw of the dice in terms of hedonism doused in fear taking place inside reminded me of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. Similarly there are echoes of Poe's narrator's sickly relationships with women in the way Abel desires the females in the castle. As the story progresses the situation for those inside becomes increasingly desperate and intense. A weird parody of normal life is played out in spite of the refugees camped outside and the holes in the floors caused by shellfire. One senses, as tensions escalate, that things are not going to end well.
I can't say I 'liked' A Song of Stone - it's far too dark for that - but there was much about the plot and the quality of the writing that I admired. Banks always had a brilliant eye for the telling visual metaphor and A Song of Stone, with its setting of castle walls, faithful old retainers and brash young gangs of outlaws gave him plenty of material with which to play. Some of the violence is hard to take but then that's the point. Desperate people in desperate situations will act well beyond the limits of acceptable society. A Song of Stone is never going to rank as a much-loved and fascinating classic like The Bridge or Espedair Street because it is just too unremittingly bleak and nasty but it is, even so, one of the most compelling pieces of fiction Banks ever put down on paper. Visceral, nasty and grotesque on the one hand, but brilliant, powerful and memorable on the other. It's not for everyone, but if you have a strong stomach it does contain some brilliant moments.
on 4 March 2013
A character's internal monologue is a tricky thing to write. How do you know what another person thinks like? If I wrote out my internal monologue it would probably be 25% thinking about food, 25% thinking about going to the loo to rid myself of the food, 5% who would win in a fight between an alligator and a lion, and 45% random gibberish. It certainly would be nothing like the narration of Iain Banks' `A Song of Stone', told from the point of view of the blandest, yet wordy, man ever. `Stone' tells the abstract tale of a war torn country and a member of the landed gentry who has his boutique castle overran by militia. As well as learning a little about the conflict, you also get glimpses into the narrator's (Abel) past and why he is a bit pompous.
My issue with Abel is not his pomposity, but his turn of phrase. He narrates as if telling this story to his lover. The use of flowery language is abstract and does nothing but confuse the reader even more than the disjointed narrative. There are moments of real interest in the book, mostly surrounding action elements as Abel finds himself close to the gun battles etc. It is the various sections that reflect on his past that leave you thinking, "I just don't care". The constant ponderings on the past are artsy for artsy sake and did nothing for me but slow the pace of the novel and make me dislike Abel even more.
Banks is a brilliant writer, `Espedair Street' proved this to me, but in the case of `A Song of Stone' he has misfired by trying to make the narration too complex. He obviously wants to challenge the reader whilst exploring the concept of conflict, but challenging is one thing, alienating another.
on 18 May 2009
One of the great skills Banks displays in his best novels is to tell a good yarn. Stories with a beginning middle and usually, a surprising twist at the end. In this piece there is pacey action, lurid descriptions of the darker side of mans enjoyments including torture, the indulgence of orgaiastic destruction and of course sex - themes familiar to us in his works. I have always found when reading Banks that the indulgent digressions he allows himself into cod cosmological explorations of mysticism are balanced by the strength of an engaging and challenging narrative which twists and turns to surprise, delight or shock us. In Song of Stone, Banks has convincing himself that he can do the indulgent stuff and not bother too much about entertaining us. Song of Stone should have been titled Dog with a Bone - the bone which Banks buries somewhere in his complex plot lines is usually one with a bit of meat still on it and a great and satisfying surprise to us when unearthed. Unfortunately the bone in Song of Stone is barely hidden at the beginning and of no great surprise when unearthed at the end - that life is a funny old thing when you are busy leading it and when you look back on it (at the end of the "story") it's either just another instance of a human's quantum of succeeding events in the infinite cosmological continuum of time or part of a great and mysteriously mediated succession of events in which there is some meaning. Phenonomonology versus metaphysics where phenomenology is the winning argument for Banks. In other words this is a rather dry and unsatisfying selection from the meaning of life menu which is neither a decent appetizer tickling the palate for more, nor a main course leaving us replete and with much to satisfyingly digest afterwards.
on 31 October 2010
No story? No characters?
I can't understand some of the other reviews here.
The story is there, the characters haunt me still, many months after I read the book. The situations that our narrator is put in, his (& others) reactions to them, the outright nastiness of much of the story, the dark sexuality ... the idea of slowly, slowly accepting that things are going to end badly ... these are the elements that made the novel for me.
I wish that many of the other books I read were half as good as this.
on 5 January 1999
Possibly one of the bleakest books I've ever read, and almost entirely lacking the warmth of some of his other works.
Set in some post apocolyptic land (Scotland? certainly not sci fi), this tells the sad tale of a minor member of the nobility's encounter with a bunch of roaming soldiers. The relationship between the two groups goes from bad to slightly better to even worse, and nobody ends up happy.
The ending of the book is so resolutely dark and without hope that you wondered why you bothered in the first place. And yet, being by the excellent Iain it is vividly and intently written, and stays with you like a particularly morbid dream for some weeks afterwards.
One to avoid if you're feeling blue (or if you fancy your sister..).