Against a Dark Background
Iain M. Banks
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Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilization based around the planet Golter. Now she is hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes that she is the last obstacle before the faith's apotheosis, and her only hope of escape is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns before the Huhsz find her.
Her journey through the exotic Golterian system is a destructive and savage odyssey into her past, and that of her family and of the system itself.
It has been awhile since I last read this book, but I'll give this "review" the old college try from memory.
This is NOT a Banks novel of The Culture. It is more along the lines of a space opera ala The Algebraist. It is, though, an excellent introduction to Banks' science fiction style. The characters are well-drawn, the settings are richly imagined, the expoits are dramatic and fun, and the future-tech does not disappoint.
The basic plot is rather simple, although it is presented in a satisfyingly convoluted style. The Lady Sharrow is our main protagonist. She is a member of an elite space combat team (and band of inter-stellar thieves) which has recently been retired and disbanded. The story picks up after her team has gone its separate ways, as she finds out that she is facing government-sanctioned execution by a religious sect seeking to bring about the return of their messiah. Okay, maybe not so simple, but fun nonetheless.
The book follows Sharrow as she gets the band back together, figures out how to save her skin, overcomes (sometimes) adversity, and solves a family puzzle involving galactic-level family heirlooms.
The book is imaginative and expertly narrated. The title is an excellent description of the story, as the vivid plot is drawn against a very dark background (death, torture, genocide, religious zealotry, and family secrets).
I am something of a Banks fanboy (I've even read his non-fiction book on scotch, for God's sake), but I recognize that some of his books fall short of the mark. At least for me. This book is not one of them. If you give Against a Dark Background the time and attention that it deserves, I think you'll find that it is worth it.
Do not expect a happy ending, though. Or even a happy middle.
I always recommend this book to scifi fans (or tolerants) that haven't yet had the opportunity to read anything by Mr Banks. After that, I steer them to Consider Phlebas, which I consider one of the greats of the genre.