Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

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“I’m a huge wild bird floating on the currents sliding within the drifting wind, hanging lazily loosed on my outstretched wings cantilevered across the singing air. My wingtip feathers are each the size of hands; they flutter like a lamb’s heart flutters when my shadow falls over it. My feet are steel-tipped grapples hung on the end of my hawser legs. My talons are unsheathed razors; only my eyes are sharper. My beak is harder than bone, keener than just-broke glass. My keel bone is a great knife cozened in my flesh and cleaving the soft air; my ribs are glistening springs, my muscles sleek bunched fists of oily power, my heart a chamber filled with slow thunder, quiet and unstressed; a towering dam trickling power, ticking over, headwaters of charged blood pent and latent.”

First off, I’d like to begin by saying how deeply saddened I am by the passing of Iain Banks. He was a master of his work, a true legend in the genre of Science Fiction. His work will be remembered as some of the best produced, and he will be remembered as one of the best authors of his generation.

With that being said, Feersum Endjinn is actually my first Banks book. Therefore it would be impossible for me to compare it to any of his other novels, and I have no idea how it stacks up to his much-vaunted Culture series. What I can tell you is that this is certainly a fascinating novel.

Now, fascinating can have a variety of different meanings, and is often negative when used in a review. But I really mean that it is fascinating. Banks’ imagination shines very brightly in this book, so brightly that it seems he got a bit carried away. Parts of the book are needlessly overcomplicated, or need greater explanation.

Feersum Endjinn takes place far in the future, a time when only the eighth death is final for people, and even then, thanks to a product of Banks’ prodigious imagination, it is not quite final. But not all is well; the earth is at risk from an impending disaster known as “The Encroachment”. It is suspected that the King is not taking the threat seriously enough, and may in fact be trying to use it for his own personal gain. This matters more to some characters than others.

There are four main characters in this book (the King also gets an occasional POV chapter, but few enough that I am not including him in this number). The first character we meet is that of a mysterious girl. We know nothing about her, because she doesn’t either. As a result, we are forced to discover who she really is, and what she’s really like, right along with her. Though she seems to be initially unimportant, she is, in fact, by far the most important character in the book, more important even than the king. The second introduced is Chief Scientist Gadfium. Of the four, I found her to be by far the most boring and bland. It seems her job is to run around and talk to people, and though her chapters get slightly more entertaining near the end of the book, she appears to have no purpose, and her actions have no real import on the climax of the story. Third is Count Alandre Sessine. Though a typical hero, with little separating him from any other generic character, I still found him refreshing and entertaining. I wish the book had started off with his POV, because not only is he far more sympathetic and interesting, his first chapter also ends with an excellent cliffhanger. His chapter is the first place the book intrigued me, and urged me to read on.

By far the most interesting of the four characters, and the one we are introduced to last, is Bascule. The first thing to note about Bascule’s chapters is that they are quite difficult to read, as they are spelled phonetically, like so:

“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u 1⁄2 a holiday?”

This is actually the first line of Bascule’s narration we see, and it doesn’t get any better. Eventually you do acclimate, and find it slightly easier to read, but it never becomes truly simple. Now, if you can work through the difficult style, you discover that Bascule is really a loving, innocent young man, whom we can’t help but root for (even if he is amazingly naïve, and often quite silly). I was however, extremely disappointed by the role he was given to play in the finale. It was such a small one, and I felt like he deserved so much more.

This is not a stellar cast of characters. And because so much of the book is told through their eyes, the story suffers as well. Not enough of the world is explained fully enough, which is a shame, because the world that Banks has crafted is intricate and deep. The Crypt in particular is a fascinating piece of worldbuilding, and yet the reader is left grasping at small hints of what it really is, forced to (inadequately) piece together their own picture of it. Many of the characters turn out to be almost completely irrelevant to the plot, which becomes especially disappointing when you have invested a great deal of time and emotion in them, only to discover that they were really only a minor character in the end.

I’m sorry. So far this has been an exceedingly negative review, and frankly, the book isn’t that bad. Count Sessine is a very good character, and I found his predicament and actions sympathetic and intriguing. Like I said before, Banks’ world is superbly crafted, it just needs to be fleshed out a little more. Asura and Bascule are both very fun to read along with, although each have their own specific problems (Asura’s POV is complex and confusing in the beginning, Bascule’s problem is the difficulty in reading words phonetically).

Ultimately, this book had a lot of potential, but needed more time to build and flesh out the world. The characters were well-crafted, and the plot intricate and well-worked. Ultimately, the greatest criticism I can level at this book is that it never gripped me. I never really felt like picking it up again once I’d put it down, even though I enjoyed it when I did.

Final Rating: 6/10

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4 thoughts on “Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

  1. Erica Dakin says:

    I’ve read all of his sci-fi/Culture novels (i.e. all the Iain M Banks books) and Feersum Endjinn certainly isn’t my favourite. His Culture novels are superb – the only gripe I ever had was that his endings were too abrupt. Try a few more, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

    • clukeh says:

      Thanks Erica! I certainly didn’t intend to stop here with Banks, even if it was a lackluster start. Where do you suggest I begin with Culture – Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, or something else?

      • Erica Dakin says:

        Hi there, apologies for the late reply, but I’ve been on holiday for the past two weeks (which for me always means I’m incommunicado).
        In answer to your question, it depends what kind of a reader you are, really. I’d say Player of Games is the better book, and a better example of a Culture novel, but personally I always prefer to read books in chronological order as much as possible, in which case Consider Phlebas is the one to start with. That one is an unusual Culture novel though, in that the protagonist of the book is an opponent of the Culture, so you see them from his negative point of view.
        That said though, they can really be read in pretty much any kind of order since they’re all stand-alone novels, and any reference to any previous novels is restricted to mention of the Idiran war usually, which is the war in Consider Phlebas. You don’t need to know anything about it though. The only exception is Surface Detail – don’t read that one before you’ve read Use of Weapons.
        Hope that helps you out a bit!

  2. Matthew Dorey says:

    Hi! A well considered review. I like Feersum Endjinn a great deal and wrote a little review of it after re-reading it over Christmas. I linked to your review so you might get a ping back. I don’t know how much Banks you have investigated since but I’d recommend either The Algebraist (another non culture novel and probably one of the best “M” novels) or Inversions (when is a culture novel not a culture novel? in this one). Anyway good job on the review!

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