Customer Review

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but definitely not his best, 17 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Surface Detail (Hardcover)
I am a huge Banks fan (of his SF works rather than his other fiction) and eagerly looked forward to this novel when it came out. While it is an improvement on the fairly turgid and unengaging "Matter", and has an intriguing story and set of characters, I had to push to finish it and kept thinking that a bit more judicious editing would have improved its flow significantly.

The story itself centres around a woman, Lededje, who is 'intagliated' (tattooed) and enslaved to one of the galaxy's most powerful - and immoral - men, Joiler Veppers. The main thread of the book focuses on her death, rebirth and subsequent attempts to avenge herself on her former captor, however there are a number of other intertwined and separate stories dealing with a battle over the existence of virtual Hells, amongst other things, and the attempts of various pro- and anti-Hell factions to get their way.

While the premise has enormous potential and is in line with the space opera themes of Banks' previous novels, the various plot strands and individual characters' stories become difficult to follow and bog down the pace significantly. Even Banks himself seems to have 'lost the plot' a bit, having to provide a hurried summary of certain of the characters' fates as an epilogue, rather than integrate them fully into the story's conclusion.

In the end, I really didn't care what happened to the main characters (much less the minor ones) as too little time is spent developing them, their motivations or their histories beyond a somewhat cartoonish level. The most interesting character is the avatar of the Culture warship "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints", whose humour and quick wit makes most of the other characters seem rather bland and under-developed. Joiler Veppers himself is also intriguing, if a little cliched, and provides a much more interesting contrast to the rather dull and earnest Lededje.

Surprisingly for Banks, the regular use of expletives (particularly "f**k") is an unwelcome new feature of his prose, which in the past has relied on clever word plays, astounding descriptions and wry humour. I'm no wowser and can appreciate the use of swearing in the right context - especially in the adult world of Banks' Culture universe - however here it is over-used and becomes a lazy mechanism to deliver humour, 'edginess' or 'realness' - I wasn't really sure which. After counting half a dozen occurrences on 2 pages, it became a distraction and an annoyance; again, better editing would have been of benefit.

"Surface Detail" certainly didn't grip me the way some of Bank's other works have (eg Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward), however it is readable if you stick with it and has enough of Banks' signature ideas and descriptions to pique your imagination and sense of humour. Perhaps he should now rest the Culture for a while so that it doesn't become stale and try to come up with something new.
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M. Jones
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Location: Sydney, Australia

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