Iain M. Banks, Against a Dark Background, Orbit, 1993.
This stand-alone novel certainly lives up to its title. The subject matter is dark, and reading it can feel like an ordeal. However, this is one of the best books I have read recently, in many ways, and I recommend it to readers who consider themselves tough enough to overcome the darkness and suffering presented here.
The story starts, setting the tone for the whole book, with an assassination of a woman and her bodyguard. She manages to save her infant daughter at the last moment. This child grows up to become the main character, Lady Sharrow, and we soon discover that the religious group that killed her mother is trying to kill her too, for obscure religious reasons.
The narrative alternates between the present day, when Sharrow is trying to evade death, and flashbacks to her past life. This gives the reader a comprehensive life story, and the flashbacks can serve as relief from the tension of Sharrow's current situation, while also providing insights into her past and personality, and introducing some of the other characters in greater detail. The reader learns about her relations with her half-sister and cousin, and with her former army colleagues.
Sharrow's persecutors are given a year in which they are legally permitted to kill her, unless she provides them with an ancient weapon, which they believe her ancestress stole from them. She embarks upon a quest to find the Lazy Gun, accompanied by her team members, who had previously served with her in a war. The team is supposed to have some sort of personality attunement, enabling them to act as one, but this was not very evident in the story. This point was the one weakness of the narrative, in my opinion. I was expecting this attunement to play a larger part in the quest.
During their adventures, Sharrow finds that she is under another threat. Someone has infected her with something that enables them to induce terrible pain throughout her body remotely at will. This is used to blackmail her. This concept was very upsetting. I can imagine even very strong people suddenly feeling helpless and vulnerable knowing that this pain could happen at any moment.
Despite the dark nature of the story, the time spent with the characters is entertaining. Sharrow is strong, obstinate, and has grown up with a sense of entitlement that leads her to endanger her closest friends on her behalf. Her personality is not always sympathetic, but her circumstances make the reader identify with her and hope for a happy ending, which seems less and less likely as the quest progresses. The journey around the planet Golter and its system is full of rich, varied settings and people. The team encounters various challenges, hints and setbacks. There are are captures and escapes. They meet others and have to decide whom to trust.
I enjoyed and appreciated this novel thanks to the vivid and engaging characters, the detailed world-building, and the high stakes of the mission, which maintained the narrative tension throughout. Many aspects of the story, the characters, and even minor incidents, will remain in my memory for a long time, and I hope to read this book again many times.