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The Algebraist

by Iain M Banks

(Orbit, £17.99, 534 pages, hardback, published 7 October 2004. Orbit, £7.99, 534 pages, paperback, first published 2004, this edition published July 2005.)

Review by Keith Brooke

There's something very odd about this book, something I still haven't quite managed to cover scanwork out. I can't remember a time when I've been something like three quarters of the way through a novel and still haven't decided whether I'm going to give it a rave review or a stinker.

And now, all the way through, and having had a couple of days to reflect ... I'm still not sure. Parts of The Algebraist are very very good: there's some excellent comic characterisation, some brilliant writing, some smart and sophisticated manoeuvrings, some great set-pieces. I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the award shortlists in 2005. I'd feel disappointed if it won, though, for despite all its merits, The Algebraist just doesn't quite do it for me.

Seer Fassin Taak is a well-connected man, whose very long life is spent studying the history and legend of the Slow Dwellers of the local gas giant Nasqueron. He also takes pleasure in the wilder side of life, much to the dismay of the older generation. Saluus Kehar is the playboy son of one of the most powerful industrialists in the Ulubis system, destined to inherit the family firm and all that goes with it. Taince Yarabokin is a military hotshot, destined for great things. An incident involving these three and a Big Alien Artefact resonates throughout their later lives and through the pages of this novel. Indeed, one of the truly impressive aspects of The Algebraist is how it works as a literary demonstration of the butterfly effect, as seemingly insignificant events on the personal scale can have sweeping, large-scale repercussions.

The Ulubis system has been cut off for over two centuries by a Beyonder attack destroying its wormhole portal. With a new portal being transported at sub-lightspeed, the system will soon be reconnected with its neighbours and allies; but then hints of a highly significant discovery on Nasqueron make Ulubis the venue for an almighty battle between the governing Mercatoria, the Beyonders, and a third faction, the Starveling cultists led by one Luseferous, a warrior priest who is also "a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination". The scene is set for what appears to be for the first third of its length, well, a mostly-decent space opera. Then come's a great rug-pull moment when we're forced to completely re-assess what we've read: suddenly The Algebraist becomes a far more gripping space thriller.

You can tell when there's a "but" coming, can't you?

But... The different parts of The Algebraist don't quite seem to slot together. On the one hand there's the high-energy, cruel and violent space war, and on the other, well, some likeable, good-humoured, knockabout fun. The gas-giant Dwellers are very amusing, with their playfully logical responses and apparently frivolous priorities. They're a lot of fun. As a comedy of manners, The Algebraist has some excellent high points, but the lurch between pantomime aliens and adventure-quest with scenes of extreme destruction just doesn't seem to fit.

Banks clearly had a lot of fun writing The Algebraist, and I had a lot of fun reading it. Or parts of it, at least.

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