Use of Weapons

Book cover of Use of Weapons.
Book 3 of the Culture series


Use of Weapons is the third novel in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. It tells the story of a man called Cheradenine Zakalwe, who works for the Culture’s Special Circumstances division.

The narrative structure is cleverly done. The main story is told in the numbered chapters, which cover the man’s most recent mission and proceed chronologically. Interspersed are the Roman numeral chapters, which detail the operative’s backstory in reverse order, starting with an earlier mission and going further back in time with each chapter. There is also a prologue and epilogue focused on another mission that takes place after the main events, though the reader doesn’t realize this until the epilogue.

This mirrored structure works well, as events in the past often parallel those in neighboring future chapters. Placing one storyline in reverse order also allows Banks to save the major reveals at the beginning and end of the man’s story for the end of the book. If the story was entirely chronological, one of the mysteries would be revealed on the first page.

I did not quite predict the twists. I guessed the chair twist, although I was thrown off by red herrings. The identity twist—that the operative is not really Zakalwe—I realized just a page or two before it was revealed. Banks foreshadowed this by never using the authorial voice to name the man, only referring to him with pronouns or as “the man”.

The title, Use of Weapons, alludes to both the wet-work Zakalwe does and how everything—a man, a sister, a chair, a ship—can become a weapon when used as one.

I really enjoyed the book and couldn’t put it down, as I wanted to understand the man’s backstory and motivations. I liked it a bit more than The Player of Games, though both are fantastic. Next up for me is The State of the Art, Banks’s collection of Culture short stories.