Inversions, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1998)

Grade: Γ — A good book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. In this case, it may be enjoyed more by people who are less familiar to Banks’ works, but will likely be enjoyed by any fan of Speculative Fiction.

In brief:

Though I do not feel that Inversions Iain M. Banks‘ best work, it is a very good book that can be read as a variety of different subgenres.  The actual word-smithing of this novel is amongst the best he has composed, and the ideas he grapples are great, but perhaps the concepts he is trying to portray are just too large for a single volume. Regardless, if you like Speculative Fiction, I think you will enjoy this book. 


Is it Fantasy or Science Fiction? Depends upon the reader I suppose.  It is set in a medievalesque world with swords, monarchies, multiple moons, etc.

In Depth:

Giving a review of this book without it being a spoiler is very hard.  Even just describing it is difficult.  It is clearly Speculative Fiction, most people read it as Science Fiction, but it could just as validly be read as High Fantasy and it may well be more enjoyable to many readers just to view it as such.  Regardless, it is clearly a book about court espionage and political intrigue set in a world of medievalesque Kingdoms.

Inversions may be difficult to define as Fantasy or Science Fiction (within the confines of this review), but it is clearly an espionage novel.  It is told from two first person points-of-view (POV). The first is of a young man sent to spy on a mysterious female physician serving the king of an extremely gender discriminatory society. The second POV is written as a historic third-person narrative[1] about the bodyguard of a different, more Cromwellian ruler of a different land.  To this end, one of the central elements of this book is determining how the stories (and indeed narrators) intertwine. 

It is also clear, right from the outset that both protagonists (that is the Physician and the Bodyguard) are from a foreign culture that is considerably less sexist and more scientifically and technologically “advanced.”[2]  This foreign land is referred to by different names by each character, but it is obvious early on that if it is not the same country, they certainly share the same culture.

As for the writing, Inversions is subtle in its style, and Banks does a wonderful job of weaving the two tales together. Indeed, it may have been his best, or at least most sophisticated, speculative fiction writing to date. To that end, I think it is completely possible this would have gotten an Alpha or Omega rating had I not read his other works first.[3]

Of course, that was not the case. I had read many of Banks’ books before picking up this novel and so had several insights that pigeonholed Inversions within a framework of Banks’ ever growing body of fiction. Try as I might, I cannot imagine reading this book without the knowledge imparted in me from having read seven other Iain M. Banks books, and five of his Iain Banks books[4] before hand.  To that end, I was torn as to whether to give this a Gamma or Delta rating. 

Bias is a difficult thing to address, and in this instance, my bias is strong.  Indeed, Inversions may be the Omega volume of Banks’ work; that is to say it may appeal more to people who don’t know Banks more than to those who have read tons of his books. Still, one cannot be totally relative when it comes to a grading system like mine so…. I settled on a Gamma.  I think many readers would like this book regardless of its genre… but in one sense it failed to bring me totally into itself or enthrall me in a manner that I have come to expect from Banks.  The characters never truly came to life for me, despite the well written plots, and fascinating approach to telling them.  Even so, it was better than most books and I think I might have thought it better still if I wasn’t a Banksiophile already.  So… Gamma…

I would suggest that people pick it up.  I’d even suggest that you might consider reading it before you read a lot of other of his books.  If you do, PLEASE comment here and let me know what you think.

[1] Technically, it is a first person narrative, but told about another individual and with the narrator having no part in the story save only at the beginning and end. 

[2] I spent about half-an-hour trying to figure out a way to put this.  After all technological or magical “superiority” does not necessarily make a society more advanced.  Indeed, how one views the importance of any given art, religion and technology often has more to do with one’s perspective. The actual historic class of individuals referred to as “Druids” looked down on writing because of its effect of stagnating the language. This changed later, of course, but it does not diminish the validity of their cultural view point.  Similarly, there are many people (not me) who feel we would have been better off without discovering nuclear science, or how to bioengineer crops.  Regardless, in this tale both the physician’s and bodyguard’s culture has medical and some form of other knowledge that is significantly greater than the Kingdom she is serving.

[3] Perhaps, then, this is the best Banks book to read first.

[4] Iain M. Banks is the name that the author uses for his Speculative Fiction pieces, while he uses the name Iain Banks when writing his more literary and/or mystery pieces. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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