Against a Dark Background is one of Iain M. Banks' science fiction novels that is not set in The Culture; rather, it's a stand-alone, and one of his best. It does exhibits many Banks tropes that make it a good example of his fiction but not to everyone's taste. For one thing, he takes an almost savage joy in killing off characters, and the body-count is high. None of the characters are what one would really call nice. The plot is convoluted, but is more clever than truly satisfying; the true meat of the novel is in the settings, the worlds and cities and places and things with which he populates his world. Thus, it rewards the reader who enjoys the journey more. The heroine, Lady Sharrow, is well-crafted and believable but takes quite some time to truly like - she's bitter, selfish, and her past has left her guarded, shielded, and emotionally scarred, keeping people at an emotional arm's length and playing the roles she has learned so well. The entire book, in fact, is really an archaeology of her past and her secrets; as much is told in flashbacks as in the present day, and even the present narrative involves the exploration and unearthing of the past and secrets of not only Sharrow but her Dascen family and of their whole civilization. Tropers will love that Sharrow's team forms a true Five Man Band, and in fact the book is trope-overdosed in many ways. It's a long book for a single-volume novel, but it doesn't drag, unlike some of Banks' more recent works. Recommended, with the above reservations; you have to be the right kind of reader to truly like set-piece tragedies like this.
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