This was another holiday book, one that I read on my
flights between Sweden and Britain. It’s quite
entertaining, and structured in an interesting way. The novel
features two interleaved chains of chapters. In one strand, the
narrative moves forward with a developing story, featuring a
representative of the Culture's Special Circumstances section
attempting to get an experienced hireling to do just one more
job. In the other strand, the chapters are flashbacks to
earlier points in the hireling’s career. Each successive
flashback chapter is placed further back in time, so that the
novel has two stories, one playing forwards, and the other
The forwards story is not as successful as it might be. The
hero’s last great mission features some neat set-pieces, but
what looks like the end of a successful mission is suddenly
followed by a strange, and completely unheralded denouement.
The hero suddenly has to lead a war on an unsophisticated
planet. In the backwards direction, there are lots of little
vignettes from a Culture mercenary’s life, and quite a bit of
angsty soul-searching too. Our hero has a tortured past, which
explains his willingness to hive off on all sorts of different
directions at the Culture's bidding. The vignettes are tasty
tidbits, and perhaps demonstrate a certain character development
too, though this is pretty muted.
Then there’s the Twist. This comes right at the end of the
novel, and doesn't make any sense whatsoever. It
really sits there and begs you to read the whole book all over
again. It wants you to try to make sense of the novel in the
light of the Twist, but my reaction was to glare at it, and
decide that it was completely insupportable.
Curiously, not long after reading UoW, I was
sitting on a coach behind two sci-fi geeks, and one of them
waxed lyrical about this novel to the other. He explained the
neat chapter structure, said there was a twist, and that
everyone who encountered it promptly turned back and read the
whole book all over again.
Not this sceptic,
bucko, I thought cantankerously to myself. Nonetheless
sufficient self-doubt remains that I will now go and sup from
the wisdom of the Internet and see what it's all supposed to
mean anyway. If I’m suitably impressed, I’ll report back.