Book Review: A Song of Stone by Iain Banks

I acquired this three years ago shortly after the author’s death. Previously, I had read only Excession which was his science fiction “trade name”. I was aware that what he wrote under his books where he used the M or did not use the M were very different. I went into this with an open mind and one eye on mixed reviews.

Iain Banks (sans M) writes in a dense literary style. There is still a hint of science fiction, at least there is with this title, but it is less important than the world and the people who live in it. This is certainly the case with A Song of Stone.

Some time in the near future, in an unnamed part of the UK near an unnamed castle, a group of refugees are fleeing… something. We never find out what this disaster is, but I sort of imagined a The Last Train type scenario (remember that?) Amongst the refugees are the owner of the castle – Abel and his sister Morgan. They are recognised by a group of soldiers (or wannabe soldiers) commanded by a woman named only as The Lieutenant (or Loot) and taken to the castle. The first few chapters are an uneasy truce as the soldiers take control and improve the defences of the fortress promising that the owners are guests who are not free to leave.

Abel and Morgan don’t really seem in complete understanding of what is going on. Abel is meticulous, a bit of a pillock, and at times quite unlikeable. Morgan is a bit wet, and enters willingly yet passively into a sexual relationship with Loot and then some of the men. She seems passive and easily led and she doesn’t have much of a voice. Gradually, the relationship between the owners and the “soldiers” break down.

This is where all hell literally breaks loose and the novel descends into a bleak and tortured tale of survival. You can almost see it coming, but nothing really prepares you for the end. It is a look at the harsh realities of war and perhaps even a less sanitised version of the end of the world scenario that has become so common today.

The style is an odd blend of first and second person. The narrator, Abel, talks in a first person narrative but when referring to his sister, refers to “you” rather than “her” as in “I look at you and see the sadness in your eyes” rather than “I look at her and see the sadness in her eyes”. It’s confusing but we soon get used to it. Stylistically, it is very easy to read despite the bleakness of their situation and the sense of impending doom that builds through the first half of the story. Abel is also quite an unreliable narrator but we do feel for him. He is trying to do the best he can for his home and for his sister against a world that will never be again.

I appreciated rather than enjoyed this book. Finishing it in two days, it’s a page turner, but it’s a kind of “car crash” page turner rather than outright gripping. 4.5 stars out of 5.


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