“Against a Dark Background” Iain M. Banks

The last of the Iain M. Banks books we own is the non-Culture book Against a Dark Background. This story is set in some indeterminate future (or secondary world) and follows Sharrow as she tries to find the artifact that will buy off the people who’re hunting her – without losing too much in the process.

Sharrow is a member of the aristocracy, one of the party people with access to the wealth and lifestyle that implies. Expelled from several finishing schools she describes herself as a difficult child who became an easy adolescent.

Sharrow is a veteran, she fought, nearly died and lost her unborn child in a recent war. She and her squad mates were synchroneurobonded, able to anticipate each other’s reactions in combat. In some ways as close as family, in other ways, well, in other ways as close as family that knows how to twist the knife.

Sharrow is an Antiquities hunter, she hunts treasure for pay. A swashbuckling maniser*, with a smart ass reply for every situation (no matter how unwise it might be) and a plan for every heist.

*c.f. “womaniser”, she and her female team-mate Zefla play the James Bond role in love ’em & leave ’em relationships.

Sharrow is the product of her life so far – obvious perhaps, but not always true for fictional characters 😉 Through the book there are flashbacks to formative events in her life, the book even starts with the scene of her mother’s assassination in front of her when she was only 5.

Sharrow is the umpteenth (and last) descendent in the female line from a woman who stole (or not) an artifact from a religious cult (or was abducted by them, or was abducted from them, it’s legend and origin story and the details fade into obscurity). Now the Huhsz must kill her before the new millenium so that their promised Messiah can be born. Or she can return the Lazy Gun her ancestor took (or didn’t) from them in the first place. Which is where the story starts – with her cousin Geis bringing the news that the Huhsz have their licences to legally hunt her.

On one level this is a book of adventure – I compared Sharrow above to James Bond, but she’s a James Bond that works with a team, who she brings back together for this one last hunt. They plot daring escapades, there are thrilling escapes and rescues, there are monomaniacally cackling villains to outwit and foil. But underneath that all there is a darker undercurrent. Sharrow’s life so far hasn’t been easy, her family is pretty dysfunctional and finding your chosen family in a military unit has its own stresses and fracture points. She’s done bad shit in the past, often with good intentions or at least not intentionally bad ones. But intent isn’t magic and she has to live with the real consequences. I didn’t think the ending was as bleak as the end of Consider Phlebas, but it’s still pretty bleak. I certainly wasn’t expecting the highlighted similarities between Sharrow & the Lazy Gun, nor was I expecting who the primary antagonist would turn out to be.

I enjoyed this one more than Consider Phlebas, so that’s a good note to finish re-reading Banks on. Next author on the shelf is Elizabeth Bear, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve got 9 of her books (and there are many more to buy), but she’s a relatively recent discovery for me so I’ve not re-read those before and they struck me on first reading as books that would have more to notice on a second read.