Banks is very good.
I thought he was going to let me down with his billion year old aliens: I generally don’t like it when characters are any more than centuries old, because to have lived that long they generally just have to be way more powerful, profound and, more importantly, unkillable, than they usually are. But I was reassured by where the book went with the Dwellers, who did turn out to be far more powerful and resourceful than they immediately presented. And also very cool that they really didn’t care that much to really notice what was going on with these ephemeral species around them: their galactic concerns were understandably quite minor. Sure Y’sul is too much of a wacky sidekick for me to credit him with millennia of experience, but this didn’t shape the book.
Banks can paint a baddie – he has Stephen King’s ability to make you feel uncomfortable when he wants you to. But he’s got so much more – he doesn’t just live in the vibe. I relished the revelation of the A.I.s – cracker scene. And more cracker because he doesn’t try to throw scenes like this in constantly. The story really coheres: Banks manages to make Fassin’s quest matter, yet he’s still plausible as a pawn. Other characters along the way aren’t just throwaways – Taince, Saluus, even the ‘truetwins’, all sorts, are affecting and feel meaty.
I notice I’ve often rated Banks as a B+, finding something to dislike among the many strengths. But here while there were perhaps less real standout scenes than in some books I’ve also criticised, and some passages are slower and less gripping than usual, I didn’t think he missed a beat anywhere (even in the Grail revelation – which is a pretty big demand). And even in saying that, the writing is simply good – evocative, not insulting, potent, assured. He’s got a fabulous imagination – some great ‘what if’s’ about things like what would ancient races look like, what about living on gas giants?
Did I mention that Banks is very good?