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Iain M. Banks - MatterMatter is Iain M. Banks' 8th book in the – loosely connected - Culture series; a 9th book (Surface Detail) is due out in October 2010.
The book follows the fortunes (for want of a better word) of the children of the House of Hausk, of the Sarl, during and after the war with the Deldeyn. Steam engines, riding mounts and flying beasts, and basic projectile weapons are the order of the day. To kick the story off King Hausk gets murdered during his latest, successful campaign, which makes the servant (and regicide) Tyl Loesp the new Regent, as the 2nd son (the 1st one died earlier) is declared missing, presumed dead; and the youngest one is too young to reign. Ferbin, the 2nd son, sees the writing on the wall (he's witnessed the murder of his father), and flees.

Now, you need to see, the Sarl live on, or rather in, a Shellworld. This is literally a planet, an ancient artefact made by a long-extinct race, which consists of shells. The Sarl live on the 8th shell, the Deldeyn on the 9th. Travel between shells takes places through the 'towers' which hold the shells apart, in 'Scendships' (lovely word, that!). The towers, and Scendships, are controlled by the Oct, a crab-like species who claim decendancy from the builders of the Shellworlds. They mentor the  Sarl (and the Deldeyn, although these mainly get sold down the river in this story). The Oct are in conflict with the Altruida who control other parts of Sursamen (the Shellworld in question). Both races are being mentored by the Involucra, who are being mentored by the Morthaveld, one of the high-level involved races, equivalent in technology and development to the Culture. You see, races are mentored to develop over time here, not seeded, or simply uplifted. And layers of shells are everywhere.

Either way, Ferbin escapes from the 8th, and starts his search for his sister, who was given to the Culture in exchange for some assistance (meddling? mentoring? where is the line?). Dijan Seriy Anaplian has meanwhile joined Contact, “the part of Culture that went out to discover and interact with other civilizations, especially new and fast-developing ones”, and “its slightly scurrilous, tentatively raffish, arguabley shadowy division called Special Circumstances”. On hearing the news she turns around, and heads for Sursamen, where Tyl Loesp's (and other people's) dark plans prosper and progress.

But enough about the story – the book is shot through with one main topic: races, their development, and how they are mentored along to join the matured 'involved' races in jostling for importance, influence, power in the universe. As Anaplian puts it: “Determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else's war is never a simple matter”. I found that the entire book, the whole story, serves to ram that point home.
This leads, to my displeasure, to long parts (especially in the first half of the book) which essentially are long exhibits of war stories, embedded in what comes across like bad Fantasy. Not good. No, really, I see what Iain is doing here, but I didn't enjoy it.
The book also doesn't really have an ending, just some kind of dismal, final chapter which closes it, but not with a normal/classic/satisfactory (delete as inclined) ending. The Epilogue tries to make up for this, and turn the mood of the finale around, but again, this didn't really work for me. The whole thing reeks of a 'Slice of Life' approach, but without the flair that (at least some) of the Japanese Manga/Anime masters pull this off with.

The book itself consists of Prologue, Story, a series of indices and lists, the Epilogue, an interview (by Mary Branscombe) with the Author, and the first two chapters of 'Consider Phlebas'. All in all a good package, although I wasn't, as you can gather from above, completely taken by the story. One of the weaker instalments in the Culture universe, in my book.

Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.

Title: Matter
Series: Culture
Series Number: 8 (Fantastic Fiction count)
Author: Iain M. Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Orbit
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2008
Review Date: 100727
ISBN: 9781841494197
Price: UKP 7.99
Author URL:
Pages: 593
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Space Opera

Iain M. Banks


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