Sometimes a book has so many incredible elements that it defies easy summary. Compound that with the fact that it shares themes with some of your favorite genre classics, and that it is written by the incredibly-talented Iain M. Banks, and you have the recipe for a very unique reading experience. As I read the story, I was forcibly reminded of some classic books in the genre, particularly Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Anathem.
The most distinctive aspect of Feersum Endjinn (1994) is definitely the chapters narrated in phonetic spelling by Bascule the Teller, an amiable young man who is seeking a tiny talking ant named Ergates that was snatched away by a strange bird. His section begins like this:
Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.
Readers who’ve read Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalyptic tale Riddley Walker will find this literary technique familiar, and it will either draw you in over time or turn you off completely. He seems to be speaking in a Scottish (or North London?) accent, and it’s very distinctive and charming if you can understand it. Now I did a sneaky thing — I love listening to Iain M. Banks’ books on audio, but strangely some of his lesser-known titles (outside the best-known CULTURE novels like Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, etc) are not available on US Audible, but are on UK Audible. Since my US Amazon account is linked to my Japanese Amazon account, I have access to UK Audible titles. It’s convoluted but so worth it, because I was able to get Feersum Endjinn, Excession, and The Algebraist that way.
Peter Kenny is the incredibly talented narrator of most of Iain M. Banks’ novels, and he has a mastery of a range of characters and British and Scottish accents, and perfectly captures Banks’ ironic and intelligent sense of humor. They complement each other so well, it’s a shame some of these titles are not available on US Audible. Kenny does such a brilliant job with Bascule, making him have a working-class humility and amiability, that Bascule has become one of my favorite Banks’ characters. And you get the added bonus of not having to read the phonetic spellings, if you don’t consider that cheating.
Feersum Endjinn is told from four alternating perspectives, and much of the pleasure of this book is slowly piecing together who the narrators are, what situations they face, a slow reveal of the very strange and complex world that surrounds them, and finally the ways in which they are connected, which all gets elegantly tied together at the end. One pet peeve of mine is that even the best written books sometimes have disappointing endings, so I was relieved to see the story resolved to my satisfaction. This is even more important for stand-alone novels.
So, being careful to avoid any spoilers, here are the main cast of characters:
- Count Alandre Sessine VII, a military commander who has been killed numerous times, most recently by assassination. He awakes in the Cryptosphere, having lost his eighth and final real-world life, and now has eight virtual lives (which rapidly dwindle) to discover who has been plotting against him and why.
- Hortis Gadfium III, Chief Scientist to the the King and Consistory. When she is contacted mysteriously with warnings that the Encroachment must be dealt with, her investigations bring her in conflict with the ruling powers and drags her into a struggle between the King and rival factions.
- Asura is a mysterious woman reborn into the Fastness, who has amnesia but knows she needs to deliver a message, without knowing the content or recipient. Her existence becomes a threat to the ruling powers, forcing her to go on the run as she makes her way further into the inner regions of the Fastness.
- Bastule the Teller is the dyslexic narrator whose main job is to dive into the Cryptosphere and retrieve lost information, often by interrogating stored personalities that have been dormant for millennia. He is also on a mission to find his tiny ant friend Ergates, and also becomes entangled with various plots as he delves deeper into the virus-infected chaos regions of the Crypt.
There is one more key character that looms throughout the story – the unimaginably vast Fastness itself, known as Serehfa. It is a massive castle-like structure that is built to a scale far beyond that of humans, and it is inextricably linked to the Cryptosphere itself. Here is a brief image:
At one end of the vast C bitten from the castle a single great bastion-tower stood, almost intact, five kilometres high, and casting a kilometre-wide shadow across the rumpled ground in front of the convoy. The walls had tumbled down around the tower, vanishing completely on one side and leaving only a ridge of fractured material barely five hundred metres high on the other. The plant-mass babilia, unique to the fastness and ubiquitous within it, coated all but the smoothest of vertical surfaces with tumescent hanging forests of lime-green, royal blue and pale, rusty orange; only the heights of scarred wall closest to the more actively venting fissures and fumaroles remained untouched by the tenacious vegetation.
The origins and workings of the Fastness have been lost in antiquity, ever since the Diaspora in which the builders left the world for unknown destinations, leaving a much more primitive populace to live within its mega-architectural confines. The Fastness and the Diaspora are strongly reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, two of my all-time favorite books, while the Cryptosphere feels much like the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Asura’s story slightly reminded me of Princess Nell’s coming-of-age adventures with the Primer in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Finally, the primitive guild-like Clan Engineers and baroque society left behind after the Diaspora reminded me of the monastic societies in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, with their limited understanding of a much more advanced past, but who strive to carefully preserve that knowledge nonetheless.
The novel rotates its perspective between the four narrative threads, often not providing all the necessary details or leaving readers dangling at the ends of chapters, so the book does require careful attention, especially Bascule’s parts. It also spends much time flitting in and out of the virtual Crytosphere, which might have given it a cyberpunk flavor, but since the imagery and events in the Crypt often resemble a fantasy quest, the book feels much more like a far-future science fantasy along the lines of Gene Wolfe’s THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN or Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH novels.
Revealing any further plot details would simply ruin your enjoyment of this baroque and playful book. Although Banks is primarily known for his space opera CULTURE books like The Player of Games, Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, as well as non-SF novels like The Wasp Factory and Walking on Glass, I’ve found that every book of his I’ve read has been worthwhile, and Feersum Endjinn in particular was a treat.