In Haspidus, it’s unthinkable that a woman could be a doctor, much less the King’s physician. But foreigner Vosill has King Quience’s ear and more than cures in her bag of tricks. Across the mountains in Tassasen, another foreigner, DeWar, has risen to prominence to be Protector General UrLeyn’s bodyguard. But are either of them what they seem? And as tensions rise, whose loyalty can be trusted?

Book cover: Inversions - Iain M Banks (trees on a shoreline, reflected in the water. Full green tint)

With Inversions I reach the Culture novels that I’ve only ever read once, and that a long time ago. These are books that I barely remember and/or that left me cold on first reading, so I’m curious to see how they’ll stand up to a more rigorous reread in context.

I’m delighted to say that Inversions at least has gone up in my estimation (last time it only garnered 3 stars), probably because I didn’t bring any expectations to the reread. And in a peculiar way, it’s simultaneously the most and the least Culture novel of any so far.

The first few books (we’ll all pretend to forget The State of the Art for now, yes?) drew us in to the Culture step by step (and layer by layer), but that journey completed in delivering the Minds’ POV in Excession. Inversions – as the title promises – turns the concept inside out and returns us to a non-Culture POV.

Inversions is set in neighbouring countries on a low-tech world, each possessing an outsider with influence over its ruler, with each outsider mistrusted by the nobility and given to odd ideas that upset the local dignitaries. To the initiated, it is an obvious guess (and one soon rewarded) that these outsiders are embedded Contact (or possibly Special Circumstances) agents; but with their stories related by a local observer it is left to the reader to read between the lines.

Whilst there are vibrant characters (UrLeyn’s son Lattens is a joy, as is conflicted narrator Oelph) and political shenanigans, this world and these societies could belong in any fantasy universe. The book’s weakness is in its world building. One thing I typically enjoy about Banks’s work is the rich tapestry of history, culture and geography that is casually flung about (and often rapidly discarded); with a few paragraphs, whole worlds come to life. Sadly, I didn’t feel Inversions matched this world-building finesse. Both Haspidus and Tassasen felt lightly-drawn and little-explored; neither the palaces nor the surrounding cities sprang into vital life for me.

Similarly, the storylines of the Dukes’ attempts to unmask the good Doctor and the question of whether there is a traitor in UrLeyn’s entourage are finely drawn, but – I still think on second reading – less absorbing than other Culture narratives to date; not least because the narrative devices distance us from the protagonists and thus the threat. But in the end – for me at least -the secondary characters and the setting play second fiddle to the delight of recognising and second-guessing what is really going on. And I took a great deal of joy in that.

If we dive into the meta, I think there’s some mileage to be had in comparing DeWar’s stories of Sechroom and Hiliti and their debate on the morality of intervention to the Minds’ moral quandaries in Excession. I also think – as DeWar’s stories are clearly as true as Perrund’s – that our Culture agents have swapped gender, the Doctor being Hiliti (her ends justify her means, a trail of corpses marking her success in shifting the King’s thinking) and DeWar being Sechroom, who kills only to protect whilst influencing his mark (which begs the question: was that mark UrLeyn or Lattens?). As usual, Banks teases us with plenty to think about.

The discussion of morality and exploration of the gentler arts of Contact manipulation is what leads me to calling this in some ways the most Culture novel. We have two professionals who are neither as jaded as enlisted Gurgeh nor as explosively interventionist as Cheradenine Zakalwe. This is what Contact really does, and it’s not something we’ve really seen up close until now.

That said, it’s ultimately unclear to me why the Culture would be interested in a civilisation so low-level. It begs the question whether our agents are more like Cheradenine Zakalwe than I give them credit for – fully-trained but semi-rogue, engaged here on their own cognisance rather than that of Contact or SC. After all, putting your money where your mouth is seems an entirely likely way to settle an ethical debate within the framework of the Culture.

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