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The Algebraist

by Rob Friesel

The AlgebraistI have been a fan of Iain Banks‘ fiction for a few years now. Ever since reading The Wasp Factory, I have been among those that counted him among the ranks of interesting, inventive, and perhaps even important living novelists.

Prior to The Algebraist
, I had not read any of Banks’ science fiction. It was then with a great deal of anticipation that I picked this one up at the library. I had enjoyed The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road so much that certainly his “M.” branded science fiction must be equally exemplary. Imagine my surprise as my enthusiasm waned and waxed and waned again throughout the reading. Observe:

Right away I was struck by how the language seemed… Stilted? Over the top? I knew going into this that the novel was a space opera but … why so operatic? The style seemed to overwhelm the substance for about the first 100 pages. I had an idea of what was developing but it flipped seemingly at random between times, places, and voices; I had an inkling that the stage was being set but it took me a while to care.

By 25-30% of the way through the story though, it gains some serious traction: the style gets out of the way and lets the story shine through, you feel OK letting yourself get invested in the events, some of the characters start to really pop and come alive. YOU GET TO MEET SOME DWELLERS. And this momentum gets going and stays pretty strong. But you have some nagging worries in the back of your mind: is “The Style” going to come back for revenge? Wasn’t there an important-seeming character or two that fell off the radar a while ago? Am I going to remember who he/she is? Will I care? And sure enough, some tedium creeps back in and you find that you feel like you missed the best part because you zoned out.

But then the war starts. And the style gets out of the way again and the pace starts to clip along really fast. And that feels great. And the read gets fun again. But you’ll find yourself waiting for a twist that doesn’t come. (Or it does but you realize that it came and went already and the only thing you thought was: “That? Duh, that’s given away on like page 9…”)

Ultimately it’s a fun read. A bit tedious at times but still a fun, deep space opera with some interesting hooks and a few compelling sub-texts.

Review originally published on

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night; weekend homebrewer. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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