Read this review on Goodreads!
It’s been a while since I’ve read anything from the Culture series. One of the problems with being away from a series like this for so long is that there are no recurring characters or consistent plotlines to help pull on your memory strings, so it’s a little hard to reacclimate to the fictional universe. In fact, many of the Culture books are set hundreds of years apart with few references to other books. It’s almost best to think of each book as a standalone novel. Use of Weapons just felt unfamiliar to me, and I spent a lot of time readjusting to the world-building and writing style despite whatever expectations I had.
Aside from the long break I took from the Culture series, I also found this particular installment to be structurally confusing. It had a lot to do with the weird chapter structure. The book alternates between descending chapter numbers written in Roman numerals and ascending chapter numbers that were spelled out. This gave me the impression that the chapters in Roman numerals initiated a future timeline that would eventually aline with the chronological chapters. That wasn’t necessarily the case. I wasted a lot of time viewing the book in this way before realizing that the Roman numeral chapters were jumping around in Zakalwe’s history with no temporal consistency. Even once I realized it was doing this, I still didn’t see how some of Zakalwe’s historical segments were important. By the time I realized this I was too far along in the book to go back and read those chapters differently. It’s possible that a future read-through of this book will make things clearer but I’m not sure I care anymore.
All that being said, I do love Iain Banks’s writing style and how it goes from being oddly cartoonish to sometimes serious just as intended. Like mentioned before, it took some time to readjust to this writing style after reading such serious and gritty fictional books prior to this (see: A Song of Fire and Ice; The Expanse, etc), but once I did adjust I remembered what a fun writer Banks is. While Use of Weapons didn’t have as exciting a storyline as The Player of Games, I enjoyed reading it just for the sake of reading Banks’ words and learning more about Culture technology and… culture (heh).
TL;DR: Half of the reason why I didn’t enjoy this book as a whole was due to the readjustment factor and the convoluted chapter structure. The other half is due to Use of Weapons just not having as awesome a storyline as The Player of Games. Luckily I’m still enticed by the Culture itself as well as Banks’ fun and elegant writing style.