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Stuff We Love: Iain M. Banks' novel Use of Weapons has not one but two sanity-curdling plot twists (spoiler-free)

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Mar 16, 2018
Iain M. Banks’ 1990 novel Use of Weapons, one of the books in his Culture series, is unlike any space opera you’ve ever read. First, its structure is both simple and complex, and second, it has a plot twist that bends your mind so hard it actually unfurls your brains. And just when you’re trying to make sense of this horror show, a second plot twist comes and furls them back up again.
 
As for the storytelling method, be warned: Every other chapter goes back in time, and conversely, the alternate chapters move forward in time. It’s a brilliant way for the late, great author to have the book end squarely in the middle of the story. (Wikipedia says that the structure was suggested to Banks by friend and science fiction author Ken MacLeod.)
 
As for the two plot twists, I’m keeping mum on the plot to avoid spoilers. (And please, no spoilers in the comments.) Because if I’m going to be punched in the sanity like that, I think other people should feel that pain, too. 
 
It’s not every day a book makes you scream. But I did scream in shock. When it happened, my husband calmly said, “I was wondering when you’d get to that page.” 
 
Simply put, there’s a reason it’s called Use of Weapons. Protagonist Zakalwe, a former military commander, uses all of them in a way that sets him apart. “Everything was a weapon,” he thinks. Everything. Gulp.
 
Use of Weapons isn’t an easy read. It’s filled with awkward names like Tsoldrin Beychae and Skaffen-Amtiskaw. It’s chock full of the politics of the Culture's galaxy-spanning civilization. Our protagonist is tortured by fragmented dreams and odd trains of thought. But it’s simply astonishing on the re-read, when you have all of the information. You see exactly why he was thinking what he was, when he was.
 
It’s a neuron-quivering experience in the best possible way.