the Little Red Reviewer

Discussing Iain M. Banks’ Inversions

Posted on: June 25, 2014

inversionsTaking a bit of a break from Hugo stuff (but not really), today I’m talking about Iain M. Banks’ Inversions, which I’m reading along with kamo of this is how she fight start, Brittian from Two Dudes in an Attic, and Matt from Feet for Brains. Head over to their blogs to see what they think of the book so far.

Chapter 12 is the magic stopping point for this discussion, and sometime next week we’ll all post about the end of the book. I always like to guess what’s going on, so I’m sure this first post of mine will be mostly observations, guesses and predictions. Inversions is the “culture novel that isn’t”, which makes it an excellent first Banks novel if you’ve never read him before.


All the guys are gonna be talking sportsball references and other intelligentsia, and I am umm…. not going to be.


When kamo was first telling me about the book, he mentioned the phrase “hiding in plain sight”.  Now, he’s read this book before, so I was assuming he used that phrase for a particular reason.  Remember those Hidden Pictures games in Children’s Highlights? how one large “hey! that’s a duck!” would leap right out at you, but you had to stare a little longer to find the spoon that was in the bark of the tree, or the banana that was in the swell of the waves in the lake, or the hippo that was in the clouds?  Reading Inversions is a little like that, with secrets hidden in plain sight, and also simply disguised as things that wouldn’t be noticed by the other characters. For example, this is a complex science fiction novel disguised as a rather straight forward  epic fantasy novel, complete with kings, wars, torturers, apprentices, concubines and spies.


Lemme ‘splain.  Apologies that this sounds plot heavy, Banks is one of those writers who puts so much subtext in that there is about nine novels jammed into the 12 chapters that I read. So yeah, it’s kinda plot heavy, but that’s nothing compared to the subtext. And it doesn’t ever feel heavy. This isn’t a book that’s going to break your brain (at least what I’ve read of it so far won’t).



The narrative follows two storylines. In one, Doctor Vosill is personal physician to King Quience. Along with her apprentice Oelph, she tends to the whiny majesty’s every ache and pain.  The King has a complaint nearly every day, and Oelph is documenting everything including stolen pages from Vosill’s diary for another master he is reporting to. Vosill is very secretive about where exactly she was educated, and she speaks to the king in a downright casual manner while everyone else at court is bowing and your majesty-ing.   Oelph is confused about some of the things he finds in her diary, such as transcripts of conversations she couldn’t possibly have overheard. He thinks she is a paranoid, making up what she believes others are saying about her.


On the other side of the planet, DeWar is bodyguard to Protector UrLeyn of Tassasen, a usurper who refuses to be called Emperor or King or whatever, since he is the Protector of the people, not the controller of them. DeWar doesn’t trust anyone, he never thinks UrLeyn is safe enough, he never goes off the clock. UrLeyn seems amused by his most loyal bodyguard’s paranoia.  Over the years, DeWar has become very good friends with one of the elder concubines, Perrund. They sit around and play boardgames while UrLeyn busies himself with the younger women in the harem.


DeWar shares  an interesting story with UrLeyn’s young son Lattens. It’s something to distract the boy as he recovers from his illness (epilepsy, maybe?). The story goes something like this: once there were two best friends who were also cousins, Hiliti and Sechroom.  They knew a lot of “poor” people, and they disagreed on how to help these people. Was it better to leave them alone so they could develop on their own, or was it better to force civilization and technology on them even thought that might hurt them in the short run? Hiliti and Sechroom were fond of bets and playing pranks on each other, so they made a bet to see which one of them a third friend might agree with. Things did not turn out very well for anyone involved in the story.  DeWar slowly shares more of the story, and more of the how Sechroom and Hiliti went about agreeing to disagree on just about everything and often putting each other in mortal danger.


there is a whole bunch of political stuff happening, but I get the impression that none of that is really important in the grand scheme of things. It’s the characters, their interactions, what they’ve lost, and what they are looking for. (And that’s kind of a Culture thing: with the plot touching on political intrigue and such, but that *not* being the actual political intrigue that’s important)


that was all the plotty stuff. here’s the meaty  stuff. Super Spoilery stuff has been changed to white text, highlight it to read it.

This is a low tech planet. None of the droids or glanded drugs or snarky mindships or AI’s or terraforming or alien civilizations we’ve gotten used to seeing in Culture novels. Or maybe this *is* the alien culture, and Vosill and DeWar are visitors from The Culture (it’s pretty obvious Vosill is from The Culture), trying to decide what to do with the backwards place?  My money is on that DeWar and Vosill are Sechroom and Hiliti, and that DeWar’s story is missing a lot of details, but that he tells the story because he misses her, and regrets how things turned out.


Since it’s a low tech place, it never occurs to anyone, like Oelph, that Vosill might have, hmmm, something like a high tech spying and listening device? Or that the poultices in her medicine bag contain something other than local herbs? Things he’d never even notice, because he doesn’t know what the look for.


It’s never explicitly said when or if someone says something sarcastically, or deadpan, or rolls their eyes, but you can *see* it in the subtext of the writing. And that is just fucking brilliant. I’ve never run into another author who can do this the way Banks did.  Just one more layer of amazing subtlety.


I bet Vosill could cure (or at least properly diagnose) UrLeyn’s son.


UrLeyn’s brother’s name is RuLeiun. same consonants, just moved around. There may have been a few other names that were not-quite mirror images of each other like that. I wonder if there is significance?


I think the King is a little in love with Vosill. He comes up with the dumbest reasons to see her all the time. And he acts like a teenager whenever she’s in the room.  She notices this… right?? I mean, right?


If you’ve already read Inversions, don’t spoil the surprise by telling me if any of my guesses are correct, or if any of my observations are even in the right direction! I like guessing, but I also like taking that slow path through the paragraphs and pages to find out what happens.



5 Responses to "Discussing Iain M. Banks’ Inversions"



Sorry about that. Best to get it out of the way early though, I think.

Also, because I have my most delicate spoiler-avoiding tippy-toe shoes on, it might amount to most of what I have to say. I missed the UrLeyn/RuLeiun mirroring, I must say, though there are any number of other, erm, inversions dotted throughout the book so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s another one. D’you think they really were trying to assassinate the protector in Chapter 12?

As for the King being in love with Vosill, I must confessed I’d never really got that, though I wouldn’t say that you were wrong. She definitely flatters him by indulging his hypochondriac whining and incessant daddy complex, while at the same time being notably blunt with everyone else around them, and to be honest I think he’d play play the noblesse oblige (in the Pratchettian sense) card without hesitation if he felt like acting on it. What’s interesting to me is how she’s forcing him to consider her as, if not an equal, then at least on a par with any of the noblemen in his court.

Oh, and we all saw this yesterday, right?

Small, kind of obvious spoiler for Inversions in the penultimate paragraph, but otherwise a safe and interesting read. Looking forward to the full-time reports 🙂



Okay, now that’s over with. I think when I read this, many moons before, I didn’t get that it was a Culture novel in disguise. Chock it up to my lack of sophistication.

This time around though, I get it. I’ve spent the last couple of chapters slapping myself in the noggin in disbelief that I missed who Vosill actually is. Add to that, I now find it infuriating that Banks chose to follow the Prime Directive throughout the story. Just fix the kid, be done with it, go back to your Culture ship floating high above knowing that you’ve probably saved some kid a horrible existence.


I ran outta time last night to finish my post. Mother-in-Law on the way for a visit and all the extra house work that such visits carry along with them. But I finished it this morning and am looking forward to hearing more thoughts from the peanut gallery.


I may be the only unabashed sports fan in the room. Hmm. How to tie this all to the World Cup?
I’ll get my initial post up a day late I think, as some other things have interfered a bit. I’ve got some reading to do before then, between and the other participants.

Also, like Kamo, I can’t seem to stop reading at Chapter 12. Curse you and your engaging prose, Mr. Banks!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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