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Iain M Banks - Against a Dark BackgroundFor once an Iain M Banks (note the middle initial – this is the SF writer persona at work here) book which is not part of his Culture universe; Against a Dark Background is a stand-alone novel. Instead we have humanity, with all its foibles as well as a few millenia of history, but limited to one system (Golter).

This is a story about a family, and its relationship with Golter and its political and power system. And it's a story about a gun, the final Lazy Gun. The connection between the two, and the relationship Sharrow has with the gun is never really explained. Or, of course, it was done so subtly that I cleanly missed it. Always a possibility!

You see, Lady Sharrow (she's an Aristo from a powerful and influential family) is on the run. The decamillenium is approaching, and the Huhsz, a religious order (with substantial war-faring capabilities) believes that the Messiah can only be reborn if Sharrow, as the final female in the line, is dead. And they have just received their 'hunting passports' from the World Court. Don't you love such a system!


But she's not alone – she has re-assembled her personality-attuned combat team from an armed conflict a while back (well, the 5 members still alive); whilst her sister (half-sister, as Sharrow insists) is a prisoner in the Sea House, the power base (and antiquities stash) of yet another religious brotherhood, after she got caught searching for the infamous Unique Principles, an ancient book which is supposed to lead to the final Lazy Gun.

And then there is a mysterious agency with extensive resources, reach, and evidently an agenda of its own; it appears that they managed to infect Sharrow with a war-tech Crystal Virus, which now allows them to affect Sharrow from a distance, voodoo style; to what end they did/do this as well as their other machinations does not become clear for most of the book...

 I found this to be a rather strange story, plaing in a re-risen High Civilisation which stagnates again, and, telling from superior artefacts from before the fall, at a lower level then its previous peak. There are 30 millennia of history to get where things are now – but now the end of a millennium is approaching, with all the complexes and hysteria this brings with it. There are loads of religious cults with lots of influence and power. The land masses on the planets are highly fragmented (think Mirrorshades. Or some of the McLeod bits from the Fall Revolution series), with varying types of jurisdiction and societal development.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks, showcasing the family history, the live of Sharrow, and especially her life-long rivalry for their cousin Geis, although that was not a symmetrial arrangement: Breyguhn wanted Geis, Geis wanted Sharrow, and Sharrow wanted to get at Breyguhn...

And no, Sharrow is not a lovalble protagonist. She is arrogant, reckless with others, doesn't seem to care about the consequences of her actions, and rarely reflects.

 The book contains lots of derring-do, sometimes with what appears to have very little to do with the  overall story arc. There are hints that deeper games are being played, of wheels within wheels and dark forces behind the scenes pulling strings. This is, I found, not as skillfully done as in some other Banks books, though.

The first part of the book I found to be jarring, with uneven pacing; this became better as the story progressed, and the characters settled into their roles.

Overall this is an enjoyable book without major flaws, although, in my opinion,  neither very compelling nor essential reading.


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Title: Against a Dark Background

Author: Iain M Banks

Reviewer: Markus

Reviewer URL:

Publisher:  Orbit

Publisher URL:

Publication Date: 1993

Review Date: 121029

ISBN: 9781857231793

Price: UKP 8.99

Pages: 487

Format: Trade Paperback

Topic: SF

Topic: Space Opera


Thanks to Little Brown for the review copy.



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