The third novel of Ian Banks’ Culture concerns an agent Zalkawe recruited for chiefly military work by the Culture’s Special Circumstances operative Sma. He is not himself a Culture man, nor is he especially sympathetic at his best, and in some ways this book felt like a return to the form of the first book Consider Phlebas, with the viewpoint agent working for the Culture rather than against it. The chapter IV that described Zalkawe’s first integration into the Culture was the most straightforward of such passages in the books so far.
The chronological structure of Use of Weapons is curious and effective. It alternates two series of numbered chapters, one running forward in time and counting up (One, Two, Three …), the other running backward and counting down (XIII, XII, XI …). The earliest episode of the novel takes place at its midpoint in chapter VII during a set of flashbacks, but these are not given their full context until the end of the book. The most recent events are set into bracketing Prologue and Epilogue passages, along with a short postfactory chapter “States of War.”
This volume was for some reason longer than I had expected it to be, and although it read at a good pace, it took a lot of attention to complete. I’m looking forward to the change of tempo offered by the next in the series, State of the Art, which collects short stories in the Culture setting.