Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Ehhhhhh. It’s Banks, so I was never *not* entertained, but overall the book fell short for me.
I’ve read a number of these novels, and Banks is, for me, all over the map in terms of quality. Some of his novels are great, and some are a hot mess. This was definitely in the hot mess category.
I liked Horza (the mc). Banks does his characters well; they’re complex, they’re interesting, they’re funny. His dialogue was great. There were some good moments in the novel, and some genuinely great moments. I think Banks fans would still enjoy it, and it’s more information about the Culture, as ever (the main reason I chose to dip back and read it.)
So. Why the low rating? In nutshell, because novels which aim for greatness and miss by a narrow margin, often fail harder than novels which aim for mediocre and hit. Banks always aims for great, but it’s (apparently) 50/50 whether he nails it. For “Consider Phlebas”, he missed.
Some specifics, for those who are interested:
Structurally, the novel felt sloppy (see: comments above re Hot Mess). If I were beta reading this, I’d be leaving notes about the plot behaving too randomly, about events simply occurring without a strong narrative thread to pull them together. About the tension and pacing arcs being off balance. Things like that. But I’m not, and it’s already published, so we’ll leave it there. This aspect of the book may not bother anyone except other writers.
In relation to concepts, Banks often has good ideas. But, again for me, he doesn’t explore them enough. He introduces ideas, then leaves them hanging; the equivalent of a man who walks into a room, starts a conversation, and the disappears as soon as he has your interest. To varying extents, even his best novels do this, so I think it’s a personal style he’s chosen rather than an unintended flaw.
I suppose there is scope to say he leaves these issues for your own intelligence and imagination, but I don’t feel the need to test my own imagination and intelligence; it’s sufficient. I’m here to investigate *the author’s* intelligence and imagination. Talk to me about these ideas. Explore them. Shying away is frustratingly coy.
The story itself was ultimately… unsatisfying, and didn’t justify the build up IMO. For example, I took an entire star off for some of the deaths which occur in the book (not a massive spoiler, that people die in a SF book). Every single death was wholly predictable, to the point where as soon as a character was introduced, I had a pretty good idea of whether or not they’d live to the end of the novel. Only one of my guesses was wrong and they all died to incredibly predictable and preventable situations.
Given how much the various characters survive against the odds when the story requires, the deaths felt extra annoying because they smacked of authorial fiat. Another improbable solution could have been contrived to save them, and it would have been no more unrealistic than their other escape attempts they endured to that point (probably less) but it didn’t happen, because the plot needed them gone at X point. So add a “forced” to that predictable and presentable.
TLDR: Yes there were things to like, and it was written well enough to engage me; and in a weird way, I’m glad I read it, if only for the additional context. But I finished the book far more frustrated than I began it, with a feeling of exasperation–because this could have been great, and wasn’t.