Iain Banks' A Song of Stone (1997) is a novel about death and violence, set in an unspecified but terribly war-ravaged European landscape. It's even bleaker than somebody familiar with Banks' work might expect, chock full of images of incest and deviant sex, atrocities of war, and a harsh outlook on human nature in general.

The writing style can be hard to get a grasp on - you could read the whole book in a night or two, and get a general grasp on the storyline, but you'd be missing much of the weird ambiguities that crop up at every turn. One of the central problems for a reader is the question of narrator, Abel. He's intelligent, but hanging right on one edge or the other of madness, and we have to take his account as unreliable in the extreme. To complicate matters, he communicates many of his most important points in puns and plays on words, which can slip by a careless reading all too easilly.

Most of the background of the story is also shrouded in ambiguity. We never even learn where the story is set; the disorganized and bloody war of all against all which is taking place is remicsent of the conflict in Bosnia, but we pick up strong hints that the story may actually be set in Britain, and the characters speculate about their war having spread across the entire world.

A Song of Stone is not, to my thinking, one of Banks' best works; it's derivative, both of many of his earlier books, and the general Lord of the Flies and All Quiet on the Western Front canon on the dehuminization of war and man's inhumanity to man. For a lesser author, though, it might have represented some sort of a breakthrough, and it's still well worth reading, if perhaps more for the interesting way the story is constructed than the underlying message.

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