Use of Weapons
By Iain M. Banks
First Published: 1990
Review © 2010 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Use of Weapons is a science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks in his series of “Culture” novels. In this novel, the highly advanced Culture civilization is working to prevent an interplanetary war within one of the many less advanced star systems. When dealing with backward societies that still practice barbaric practices like war, the Culture hires mercenaries to take care of its dirty work. For the situation at hand, the Culture has identified an ex-mercenary named Zakalwe as the perfect agent to extract a key person from a high security research facility. Zakalwe, is an experienced special forces type of mercenary who embraces the most dangerous missions and is obviously desperate to atone for a terrible dark secret from his past. Now, if the Culture can find Zakalwe, convince him to join their cause, and rely on him to perform a daring mission before he has a serious breakdown, they just might be able to save millions of lives.
The setup for Use of Weapons sounds terrific and seems to offer loads of potential. Indeed, this novel has some gritty action scenes, a mixture of humor and action, and a dark mystery concerning Zakalwe’s past. The chapters alternate between the present and the past which gradually unfolds through a series of flashbacks. Within a few chapters, I was hooked and my expectations only increased as both the present and flashback narratives approached their climax. Everything seemed to be heading on target. Then, the dark secret of Zakalwe’s past was finally revealed and ……. everything came to a screeching halt! All that was left was disappointment and the question, “how could it all go so wrong?”
The good parts of this novel include witty dialog mixed with secret agent intrigue and violent action. The spy thriller story is a bit over the top but as it unfolds, flashbacks to Zakalwe’s childhood steadily increase the anticipation of uncovering a dark secret. However, the mystery, when finally revealed, is a complete letdown. While the secret is suitably horrific, it comes about in a ridiculous fashion based on a course of action that was decided on by Zakalwe in a manner that doesn’t seem at all consistent with his character and his training as a military leader. This brought the book rating down from considerably above average to average. Then, to make matters much worse, there was a last minute final twist which uncovered an even deeper secret of Zakalwe which caused another 180° turn. At this point, my rating plunged from average to seriously bad as the last minute twist seemed like a cheap trick. Well, let’s be honest here. The ending was complete crap that ruined a promising novel.Iain Banks has written terrific modern fiction and science fiction novels. Unfortunately, Use of Weapons is not one of them. Stay far away from this novel unless you want to have your reading hopes raised to a high level, only to be completely dashed.