One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that it can be read on different levels: for someone not accustomed to Iain Banks’ writing it might appear like a fantasy novel, set in a medieval-like world replete with court intrigue and political games, plotting nobles and selfless heroes, and it can be read as such with no loss or lack of understanding; but for those who have already encountered the Culture, the star-spanning civilization at the center of Banks’ stories, it’s quite another matter.
The novel deploys on two different tracks: one follows Doctor Vosill, personal physician to the king of Haspide, and is narrated by her apprentice Oelph in the form of letters/reports to his mysterious “Master”, someone who has placed the young man alongside the doctor with the task of spying on her; the other one, told instead in the third person, concerns DeWar, the bodyguard of the Protector of Tassasen, a realm on the other side of the world from Haspide. Vosill faces quite some challenges, first because she’s a woman in a profession traditionally held by men, and second because she voices medical theories that are quite advanced for Haspide and are therefore looked on with suspicion and scorn by her peers. The fact that she has gained the favor and the trust of the King does not help her, either. DeWar’s position is far easier, of course, even taking into account the constant threats to the Protector’s safety, that he tackles with such unflagging vigilance as to be the object of constant jests, even from his own high-placed charge.
Unusual narrative arrangements are not new to Banks (Use of Weapons comes to mind) and this keeps the story-flow quick and engrossing, particularly when some peculiar details come to the fore and become instantly recognizable to a Banks aficionado: Doctor Vosill’s medical treatments and her approach to medicine speak clearly of a more advanced civilization, attributed in the story to her origins in distant Drezen but easily pointing to a quite different and more sophisticated source. On the other side of the world, DeWar tells the Protector’s young son some fascinating stories about the imaginary land of Lavishia, where people enjoy a carefree and easy life in pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment. When he relates the tale of two friends, Hiliti and Sechrom, who differ in outlook about the best way to bring Lavishia’s life-style to other less fortunate people, the proverbial cat jumps out of the bag, since the two approaches – just observing without intervening versus nudging forward, more or less forcefully, other cultures’ evolution– show quite plainly the dichotomy at the basis of Banks’ Culture novels, and the philosophies of Contact and Special Circumstances.
But even without these details at one’s disposal, the story is absolutely enjoyable, and one could read it simply as the journey of two different people who never meet but care deeply about the outcome of their respective adoptive societies. Vosill and DeWar are indeed mirror opposites – inversions – and the novel deals more with the shaping and development of their characters rather than with the events they are at the center of or the world they are visiting, while approaching the main question: is it better to let a culture move along its evolutionary path undisturbed, or to guide it, unobtrusively but firmly, toward a better one? And who can decide what is better, or if the price to be paid (because there is always one) is worth the outcome? More important still: where is the border that separates constructive help from high-handed interference? Because both characters do interfere, apparently in small ways, in their respective societies, but neither of them can predict the long-term consequences of their actions: stopping a deadly plague can have the immediate effect of bettering the living conditions of a city’s inhabitants, for example, but no one can tell whether one or more of those who might otherwise have died would impact the future of that city for good or bad. And even DeWar, who appears to be the one who prefers observation to intervention, does change the possible outcomes by saving – repeatedly – the Protector’s life: who can tell if that’s a good or a bad thing?
If there is no easy answer to the question – as I think there can’t be, because the matter is too subjective and too subject to unforeseeable variables – the merit of the book goes to the story itself and to the characters: DeWar appealed to me a little less, probably because of his quiet and unassuming ways, while I enjoyed reading about Doctor Vosill’s adventures quite a bit. Her interactions with young Oelph, her attempts at making him a thinking person, one who is not guided by preconceived notions and set standards, are conducted with fine humor and a clear affection for her apprentice. Where she truly shines, however, is in the wordplay with King Quience and his courtiers, especially those who make no mystery of their distrust and scorn: there is a definite flavor of danger in such exchanges, of complicated dances over a blade’s edge, with the doctor being quite aware of the pitfalls awaiting her in case of a miscalculation and yet appearing to enjoy her play with fire.
The two stories, Vosill’s and DeWar’s, are somewhat wrapped up but not in a definite way: it’s something I have become accustomed to with Banks, who always leaves a sort of open ending to his books. It can be frustrating at times, but after a while I’ve come to appreciate this side of his story-telling: in a way, stories never end – when we close a book, the characters ideally go on with their lives, move toward new discoveries, and so on. This world where these two characters have spent some time has changed – for good, or for bad, we are not given to know, but change has come, partly through their passage in its history. Have they done some good, or not? That remains an open question, of course, but they both fascinated me while I followed their journey. And it’s more than enough.
My Rating: 8,5/10