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Literature / Against a Dark Background

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"I'd been a difficult child; I became an easy adolescent."

A 1994 stand-alone science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks, better known for his Culture novels.

Sharrow, a cynical, emotionally scarred aristocrat who once led a personality-bonded combat squadron, is warned by her cousin that the cult who killed her mother when she was very young has obtained a Hunting Passport against her, a legal license to murder for a year and a day. There are only two ways out; survive the year, or return what her long-ago female ancestor stole from the cult: the last Lazy Gun, a whimsical weapon of destruction.


She reassembles her Five-Man Band to search for the Gun, but bad luck in the present and the events of the past stalk her as she gets closer and closer to her goal.

There's an epilogue not printed in the novel which Iain Banks published online; it's available here. It provides further detail on the ending, changing the tone of book to some degree.

This novel features the following tropes:

  • Ace Pilot: Sharrow, during the flashbacks to the Five Per Cent War.
  • Action Girl: Sharrow.
  • A God Am I: Sharrow is captured by a team of mercenary solipsists, each of whom believe that they are God and everyone else, including the rest of their team, are figments of their imagination.
  • As You Know: Mr. Exposition tells Sharrow her own backstory.
  • BFG: A group of solipsistic mercenaries dump an advanced weapon that they have been gifted after falsely assuming that it has run out of ammo. Previously they had used it to shoot down several jet fighters.
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  • Bookends: the online epilogue puts us back on a cable car.
  • Broken Bird: Sharrow, with a big chunk of Don't You Dare Pity Me!. Seeing her mother killed by assassins is pretty much her earliest memory, and there's not a lot of happiness in her upbringing.
  • Bumbling Dad: well, really Loser Dad. Sharrow's father pisses away the remains of the family's wealth as she grows up on "casinos and courts; father had an obsession with screwing money out of one of them. Mostly, they did it to him."
  • Cain and Abel: Sharrow and her half-sister Breyguhn loathe each other.
  • Chekhov's Gun: and literally! That Sharrow always carries her HandCannon with a round in the breech (against the manufacturer's recommendation), which we're told within the first few pages, becomes important much later on.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Most of the ancient technology is sufficiently advanced, particularly the Lazy Guns, which destroy anything by extra-dimensional, whimsical means.
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  • Cult: almost too many to count. A cult is responsible for the death of Sharrow's mother and the contract on Sharrow's life, while many other cults with strange beliefs and practices are encountered during the novel. A common Banks trope.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Sharrow indulges in one as she approaches the final climax.
  • Date Rape Averted: Geis on Sharrow, in flashbacks.
  • Dead Man Switch: Geis claims to have one on a grand scale. He may or may not be lying to protect himself.
  • Decoy Leader: Chrolesser is introduced as the architect behind the book's events. It very quickly turns out that he's just a puppet, covering for Geis.
  • Only One Name: Sharrow. The highest level of aristocracy only have single names, while each lower class has more.
  • Parental Favoritism: Sharrow is their father's ungrateful favorite, much to the hatred of her half-sister, Breyguhn.
  • Psychic Link: Sharrow and the rest of her combat squadron (originally eight) were linked together with a synchroneurobonding (SNB) virus.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Sharrow must reassemble her Five-Man Band to find the Lazy Gun, which is the only thing that will buy off the cult after her life.
  • Really Gets Around: Sharrow, especially in her younger years (see the quote above).
  • Single Line of Descent: Sharrow is the last of the female line of the Dascen family, which the Huhsz cult has pledged to wipe out.
  • Smart Gun: The Lazy Gun that drives the plot.
  • Spoiled Brat: Sharrow as a child and teenager; filled with resentment about the death of her mother and indulged by a father she had no respect for due to his losing ways, the child Sharrow sounds like an obnoxious little brat. Volunteering for the Five Per Cent War (to spite Geis, she joins the other side) cured that ... at quite a cost.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Geis.