Against a Dark Background

Image of book cover (35k gif)

Publisher: Orbit (1993)

ISBN: 1 857 23179 1

Précis: She came from one of the more disreputable aristocratic families...

Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilisation based around the planet Golter. On an island with a glass shore - relic of some even more ancient conflict - she discovers she is to be hunted by Huhsz, a religious cult which believes she is the last obstacle before their faith's apotheosis. She has to run, knowing her only hope of finally escaping the Huhsz is to find the last of the ancient, apocalyptically powerful but seemingly cursed Lazy Guns... but that is just the first as well as the final step on a search that takes her on an odyssey through the exotic Golterian system and results in both a trail of destruction and a journey into her own past, as well as that of her family and the system itself; a journey that changes everything...

Be warned! To proceed reading below here is to risk spoilers about the story of the book. It is recommended that you proceed only after having first read the novel.

Summary: Informed by Cousin Geiss that the Huhsz will soon have the legal permits to hunt her for a year, not to mention being approached in a somewhat uncoventional manner by an unknown group, Sharrow begins to re-assemble the combat team she led in the Tax War. With whom, until reasonably recently, she worked as an artifacts retreival group. This requires convincing the reluctant Cenuij to join them. Cenuij blames Sharrow for the disaster that befell Lip City when researchers there tried to disassemble the results of their last job as a team - the retrieval of the second to last Lazy Gun.

Unable to convince him on the spot she proceeds further south to the LogJam city where another team member, Miz, is planning the heist of the most heavily guarded and expensive aritfact in the system - the Crownstar Addendum. Pulling the heist itself off the groups runs into complications as Sharrow is seperated from them and then 'interviewed' by an as yet unknown group who induce her to find the last Lazy Gun for them.

Captured, shortly after the interview, then reunited with her team, after paying for her release, they begin to plan their next move. Joined by Cenuij they learn from Sharrrow's half sister Breyguhn that the artifact book 'Universal Principles' contains the location of the last Lazy Gun. But first they make a quick detour, capturing the Hunting Passports that grant the Huhsz the legal right to hunt Sharrrow - dropping them into a radioactive storage silo to slow the Huhsz down.

That accomplished they travel to see Bencil Dornay, an ex-servant of Sharrow's grandfather, who knows the location of the 'Universal Principles'. Gaining that information they travel, incognito, off world to the technophobic realm of the Useless Kings, where the book is kept. Working quickly and carefully they recover the book just as a band of Huhsz arrive in the Kingdom looking for Sharrow.

Returning to Golter via Nachtels Ghost, where the 'Uncertain Principles' is handed over for the release of Breyguhn from the Sad Brothers, they are all captured and transported by Land Car towards the Log Jam where charges await them for the business with the Crownstar Addendum. Rescued by the Solipsists who captured Sharrow earlier, who have been hired by an unknown agency, from the Land Car they make it to Vembyr, the Android City, where the tomb of Sharrow's grandfather Gorko is kept.

Examining the tomb they discover that it has two location indicators that point to a place in proscribed territory, presumably where the Lazy Gun is held. Equipping themselves they begin an expedition into the area, accompanied by an Android that Sharrow has befriended. Attacked almost immediately upon arriving in the proscribed areas their vehicles are destroyed reducing to them to fairly minimal equipment levels. Deciding to press on by foot they reach the indicated site only to have Sharrow paralysed just as she opens up the cache, the android disabled and the rest of the team systematically killed.

Finally, after being knocked unconscious, she awakens captive again in someone's fortress. Interviewed by the mysterious leader of the place she manages to effect an escape when the fortress is attacked first by a light mounted cavalry unit, then a unit of Huhsz and then a much better equipped mounted unit. Not sticking around to sort out who won Sharrow notices that one of the corpses was a member of the Sad Brothers and heads to their castle.

Once there she forces her way in, only to be captured again. Finally she meets the person masterminding all the events that have happened to her and also trying to effect massive social change throughout the Golter system. Effecting an escape again she is confronted by this person, but this time she kills them and speeds off into the distance as the effects of her actions begin to reverberate throughout the system.

Comments: Whee! A fun book. Not only does Iain create a wonderfully bizarre system for the heroine to move through but he manages to lay waste to large chunks of it as well. This is not a happy tale in that, by the ending, you have seen everyone Sharrow cares about killed or destroyed. But the death isn't casually narrated and then forgotten, out of this crucible of events comes a changed Sharrow. Indeed the main story is about the changes to Sharrow these events are having.

Running in the background are a variety of other serious points. Golter is a planet over-run by legality and starting to suffer from pre-millenial fever. Both of which are examined in the book and critiqued to a fair degree by showing the ludicrous extremes. Finally the book steps up from criticising just pre-millenial silliness to that of all zealously held beliefs.

On top of that it simply is a well told tale. The description of the Lazy Gun alone warrants reading the book yet that is just one of the many lavish descriptions that both items, places and people get in this book. The Golterian System is full of quite remarkable artifacts of both it's civilised history and it's natural enviroment. One of the really deft touches used is that it is hinted at, but never explicitly mentioned, that the Golterian System is a lone star outside the galatic plane and quite isolated astronomically speaking - making travel out of the system tricky at best if not impossible.

Consequently Golter is a society turned in on itself. Unable to leave and expand yet seemingly also unable to ever reach a long term level of stability and social equilibrium. Yet none of this is explicitly mentioned, instead the reader is left to piece together the almost off-handedly mentioned clues. Such depth and texture make this a book worth coming back to again and again as you discover another nugget of detail you missed on the previous readings.

While this isn't a Culture novel don't let that stop you from getting it. While it doesn't reach as high as the best of the Culture novels it comes fairly close. It's biggest lack being the slighlty unsatisfying and open ending to the story which leaves you asking about what happens next...

Philip R. Banks
Send Email

Return to the Iain M. Banks Index
Return to the Fortress Entrance