Rating: 4 stars
This is one of the best Iain Banks novels I’ve read. It’s on a par with The Crow Road for plot and character realisation. Banks is very good at creating flawed but likeable characters. As with many of Banks’ leading men, Stewart is a bit of an idiot, but not an annoying idiot. He’s just human. The rest of the cast of characters could easily have been ciphers but Banks imbues them with enough humanity to make them matter as people as well as tools to move the plot along. The story itself is funny and sad and tragic and scary, set in a remote Scottish town run by rival criminal families who maintain a veneer of civility while using murder and violence as a means to control the population when their power is threatened. Stewart has had to leave town for a stupid mistake that offended one of the families and is now returning 5 years later for a funeral. He has to negotiate the politics of the town as though he’s in a mediaeval court. As the book progresses, we find out what it is that Stewart did, and who else was involved. It’s an ancient story that could have been a Greek tragedy or a play by Shakespeare but instead spans the first two decades of this century.
If you’ve never read any of his books, this is a good introduction to Banks at his best. Sometimes he could be a bit of a lazy writer, too pleased with himself, but most of the time he got it perfectly right. This is one of those times. He’s sadly missed.
I’ve yet to read any of the SciFi he wrote as Iain M Banks.
The BBC did an adaptation of Stonemouth recently as well. They got it mostly right.