A Song of Stone

( 5 )

Overview

A European nation not unlike Bosnia: armed forces roam the lawless land where dark columns of smoke rise up from the surrounding farms and houses. The war is ending, perhaps ended. But for the castle and its occupants, a young lord and lady, the trouble is just beginning.
Fearing an invasion of soldiers, the amorous couple takes to the road with the other refugees, disguised in rags. But the brutal female lieutenant of an outlaw band of guerrillas has other ideas. Just hours ...

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Overview

A European nation not unlike Bosnia: armed forces roam the lawless land where dark columns of smoke rise up from the surrounding farms and houses. The war is ending, perhaps ended. But for the castle and its occupants, a young lord and lady, the trouble is just beginning.
Fearing an invasion of soldiers, the amorous couple takes to the road with the other refugees, disguised in rags. But the brutal female lieutenant of an outlaw band of guerrillas has other ideas. Just hours into their escape, the fleeing aristocrats are delivered back to the castle, where, now prisoners in their own home, they become pawns in the lieutenant's dangerous game of desire, deceit, and death.
A Song of Stone demonstrates Iain Banks's unique ability to combine gripping narrative with a soaring, voyaging imagination. This noir fable confirms his reputation as the master of things dark and debauched. Singular, haunting, and viciously wry, A Song of Stone is a tour de force of contemporary fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
John Clute The Washington Post Book World Braces the...Iain Banks has become extremely skilled at depicting the dark vagaries of living in the twentieth century.

Richard Eder Los Angeles Times Book Review ...powerfully written and fiercely provocative.

Spin A fairly great, strange mix of classical affect, lush brutality, and adolescent fantasy in a tale of postsocial-collapse castle life....The writing will loop you in.

The Times (London) Mad Max transplanted to the Scottish Highlands.

Times Literary Supplement (London) Banks's already high reputation can only be enhanced.

John R. Alden The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Banks's writing — from the elegance of his sentences to the swift-flowing back and forth of his storytelling — is stunning.

Peter Wolfe St. Louis Post-Dispatch The vehicle for [the] plot development is the book's remarkable voice. Give Banks an A-plus for his ability to build a mood.

Publishers Weekly [Banks's] impeccable prose undulates with poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror.

Thomas Goughan Booklist This dark tale...will further strengthen Banks's reputation as one of [Britain's] most important and compelling writers.

Kirkus Reviews A daring, deeply unsettling meditation On the very human face of evil.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'This could be any place or time,' observes the narrator of this near-future fable, summing up the universality of its antiwar sentiments. Although vague in the details of geography and history, Banks's latest U.S. release (after Excession) is sharp and perceptive in its philosophical exploration of the dehumanizing potential of armed conflict. Set in a Brechtian landscape of revolution and depleted resources, it follows the tribulations of Abel, an aristocrat forced to billet Lieutenant Lute and her guerrilla army in his castle. Initially, the two treat each other with a strained civility that allows Abel to gloat secretly at the profane hordes who 'commonise... what should be free from vulgar threat.' As the battle draws threateningly nearer, the pretense of mutual respect dissolves and Abel finds the increasingly barbaric behavior of his captors resonating with a savagery in his own soul. Like J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, Banks is a visionary whose depictions of the strange forms morality, politics and social relationships assume under the pressure of extreme circumstances fall almost by default into the realm of science fiction and horror. His impeccable prose undulates with a poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror. In less skilled hands, Abel's reluctant acknowledgment of his class's complicity in the despoliation of the country might have been just another war-is-hell story. Banks makes it the fulcrum of an emotionally intense odyssey of self-revelation.
Library Journal
In an unidentified land somewhere in Europe, in the midst of an unidentified but very bloody war, a lord and lady attempt to flee their castle but are turned back by a woman lieutenant and her band of soldiers, who take refuge in the castle and make playthings of their unwilling hosts. Bombardments rain down on the castle, an old servant dies of shock, and soon the soldiers take their vengeance on the castle inmates. The images here are astonishingly grim and forceful: crucified orphans; a ludicrous hunting trip forced on the lord by the lieutenant; soldiers wrecking the castle and then tossing the bound lord into a well, where they urinate on him; the lord placing the bloodied head of the near-dead lieutenant on a millstone; the lady thrown from the parapet, one ankle bound, and drowned in the moat. But grim images aren't enough to make a story, and the lack of details -- where are we, who are these people, and why are they fighting? -- work against the novel's success. We cannot be drawn in as the lord grimly recounts both past and present in a near-monotone, and just when we should be looking, aghast, trying to fathom human nature, we turn our heads. Worthy but nearly unbearable to read, never mind that it was a best seller in Britain. -- Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal
This millennial thriller features a band of guerrillas who invade a castle in Bosnia-like territory and hold the lord and lady captive. A No. 1 best seller in Britain by an author whose first novel, The Wasp Factory, was chosen by the Independent as one of the best 100 novels of the century.
The Independent
Banks has nudged his world sideways into a dimension just next door to this one.
The Guardian
Eccentrically fascinating.
Sunday Telegraph
Not for the first time, Iain Banks has produced a work of imagination and arresting originality.
London Sunday Times
Mad Max transplanted to the Scottish Highlands... This strange, death-haunted novel resembles nothing else he has written.
The Saturday Times
Boundless imaginative gifts.
Times Lit. Supplement
Compulsively readable... Bank's already high reputation can only be enhanced.
Literary Review
Banks has forged an extraordinary style -- a mix of ancient and modern. There are distinct Shakespearean echoes... Banks's vision is unrelenting, his imagination the stuff of nightmares.
Margot Mifflin
. . . [M]akes an abstraction of a blood bath. . . .In Banks' hands, warfare, even so graphically rendered, has never been so tediously cerebral. -- New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684855363
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/7/1999
  • Edition description: 1 SCRIBNER
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 0.66 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Iain Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, recently selected in a British poll as one of the top one hundred novels of the century. Since then he has gained enormous popular and critical acclaim with his other works of fiction and, as Iain M. Banks, science fiction. He lives in Scotland.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Winter always was my favourite season. Is this yet winter? I do not know. There is some technical definition, something based on calendars and the position of the sun, but I think one simply becomes aware that the tide of the seasons has irrevocably turned; that the animal in us smells winter. Disregarding the imposed grid of our chronology, winter is something inflicted upon our half-world, something taken away from the land by the cold and cooling sky and the low and lowering sun, something that permeates the soul, and enters the mind through the nose, between the teeth and across the porous barrier of the skin.

A raw wind picks and stirs small spirals of leaves across the broken grey surface of the road and dumps them scattering in the cold puddles of water at the bottom of the ditches. The leaves are yellow, red, ochre and brown; the colours of burning in the midst of this damp chill. Some leaves remain on the trees overlooking the road; no ice rims the ditches' mean trickle, and on both sides of the plain the hills are free of snow under a mid-day sun within a wide slice of cloud-free sky. But still it feels like all autumn's past. Northwards, in the distance, a few mountains hide behind a grey besieging fleet of clouds. Perhaps there is snow there, on those peaks, but we are not allowed to see it yet. The wind comes from the north, pushing veils of rain down the hills towards us. Across the fields to the south — some trample-blonde and wasted, some harvested and earth-bare, a few pitted with craters — columns of smoke climb, shifted aslant by the freshening breeze. For a moment, the wind smells both of rain and burning.

Those around us, our fellow refugees, mutter and stamp their feet on the greasy surface of the road. We are, or were, a stream of humanity, a surge of outcast people, arterial and quick in this quiet landscape, but now something holds us up. The wind dies again, and on its ebb I smell the sweat of unwashed bodies and the scent of the two horses pulling our makeshift wagon.

You reach up from behind me and hold my elbow, squeezing.

I turn back to you, brushing a wisp of jet-black hair away from your brow. Around you are clustered the bags and chests we thought to take, stuffed with whatever we hoped might prove useful for us but not too tempting to others. A few more precious items are hidden within and beneath the carriage. You have been sitting with your back to me in the open carriage, looking back along our route, perhaps trying to see the home we left, but now you are twisting round on the seat, trying to see past me, a frown troubling your expression like a flaw in a statue's marble face.

'I don't know why we've stopped,' I tell you. I stand up for a moment, looking out over the heads of the people in front of us. A tall-bodied truck fifty metres ahead hides the view beyond; the road here is straight for a kilometre or so, between the fields and the woods (our fields, our woods, our lands, as I still think of them).

This morning, when we and our few servants joined the flow of people, carts and vehicles, it stretched unbroken out of sight both up and down the road; a continuity of the displaced, all moving, shuffling, eyes cast downwards, trundling from roughly west to vaguely east. I had never seen such a mass of people; a river of souls upon that road. They reminded me of childhood paper-people, outlines cut from compressed newspapers and then pulled out, all linked, all similar, all slightly different, all taking their shape from what has been removed and — fragile, flammable, disposable — by their nature demanding some suitable ill-use. We joined them easily enough, fitting in yet standing out.

Some noises come from ahead. They may be shouts; then I hear the dry crackle of small-arms fire, sparse and sharp in the resuming wind. My mouth becomes dry. The people around us — families, mostly, little groups of kin — seem to shrink in on themselves. I can hear a child crying. A couple of our servants, leading the horses, glance back at us. After a while, a new, closer smudge of smoke rises from beyond the tall truck ahead. A little later still, the queue of people and vehicles starts to move again. I flick the reins and the two brown mares clop onwards. The tall truck's exhaust gives up a cloud of smoke.

'Were those shots?' you ask, turning and standing and looking past my arm. I smell your scent, the soap from your last bath this morning in the castle, like a floral memory of summer.

'I think so.'

The mares edge us onward. The smell of the truck's diesel fumes lies briefly across the wind. Tied, hidden, under the carriage there are six drums of diesel, two of petrol and one of oil. We left our vehicles in the castle yard, reckoning the horses and this carriage could take us further towards whatever safety's to be found than could the motors. There is more to that calculation than just miles per gallon or kilometres per litre; from all the rumours, and indeed from the little we've seen so far, working vehicles, and particularly those capable of going off-road, attract the attention of exactly those we are currently trying to avoid. Just so the castle, seemingly so strong, only draws trouble to it. I have to keep telling myself — and you — that we have done the best thing, leaving our home to save it; those no doubt already picking over it are welcome to what they can carry.

The smoke ahead of us grows thicker, comes closer. I think perhaps a more possessive, less protective soul than mine would have burned the castle, this morning, when we left. But I could not. It would, no doubt, have felt good to deprive those threatening us their stolen reward, but still I could not do it.

Uniformed men with guns — uniforms and weapons both various, irregular — are shouting at the tall truck ahead of us. It lumbers off the road and into the entrance to a field, letting those behind it pass on by. The column of refugees ahead, a stream of folk, all heads and hats and hoods and wobbling piled-up carts, stretches towards the horizon.

We come to the source of the smoke, and by that rising column, ours stops again. By the road there is a burning van; it lies tipped in the ditch, not quite on its side; an open trailer behind it sticks its rear into the air, its contents spilled from beneath a dark tarpaulin. The van pulses with fire, flames spilling from its broken screen and windows, smoke bustling from its flung-open rear doors. Our fellow travellers, at least those on foot, bunch to the far side of the road as they pass it, perhaps fearing an explosion. More uniformed men are picking at the scatter of goods spilled from the van's trailer, oblivious to the nearby fire. Spread on the ditch-bank near the van, what looked at first like two more piles of rags are both bodies; one face down and one, a woman, staring up to the sky with wide, immobile eyes. A brown-black stain discolours her jacket down one side. You stand, looking, too. A pitiful, desperate moaning comes from somewhere ahead.

Then, beyond the smoke and flames and the van's tilted roof, where a luggage rack had broken free and spread bags, drums and containers across the coarse grass and stunted bushes there is movement.

It was there we saw the lieutenant first, rising from beyond the wreck's full bloody flames, her figure distorted by that rising heat as though through twisting water; a rock to foul the flow.

A shot comes from where the tall truck is, stopped at the gate leading to a field ahead, opposite the entrance to a forest track. People duck around us, the horses start momentarily and you flinch, but I am held by the gaze of the figure beyond the flames. Some more shots crack out, and I turn at last, gaze torn, to watch people stumbling from the tall truck, hands raised or on their heads as more men in uniforms herd them away, drop the tailgate with a thud and start to rummage through the vehicle. When I look back, you are seated again, and the uniformed woman I saw through the flames is stepping, flanked by two of these irregular soldiers, to the door of our open carriage.

Our lieutenant (though I'll admit we did not think of her as such then) is of average build, but with an air of gracefulness about her movements. Her plain face is dark, nearly swarthy, her eyes grey under black brows. Her attire is composed of many different types of uniforms; her stained, scuffed boots come from one army, her torn fatigues from another, her grimy, holed jacket from yet one more, and her crumpled cap — sporting wings as part of its insignia — appears to have originated in an air force, but her gun (long and dark, sickle-shaped magazines neatly taped back-to-back and upside down) is spotlessly clean and gleaming. She smiles at you and tips her cap briefly, then turns to me. The long gun rests easily on her hip, barrel threatening the sky.

'And you, sir?' she asks. Her voice possesses a roughness I find perversely pleasant, even as my skin crawls at a buried menace in her words, a promissory threat. Did she suspect, did she foresee something even then? Did our carriage mark us out within that crowd, a jewel set in a baser band, appealing to the predator in her?

'What, ma'am?' I ask, as somebody screams. I glance away to see a group of the soldiers gathered around somebody lying on the roadside, a few metres in front of the burning van. The refugees file past this group as well, keeping well away.

'Have you anything we might want?' the uniformed woman asks, swinging lightly up on to the carriage's kick-step and — with another smile at you — leaning over to lift the edge of a travel rug with the muzzle of her long gun.

'I don't know,' I say slowly. 'What is it you want?'

'Guns,' she shrugs, glancing, eyes narrowed, at me. 'Anything precious,' she says to you, then uses the long gun's muzzle to peek under another rug across the carriage from where you sit, pale-faced, wide-eyed, staring at her. 'Fuel?' she says, looking at me again.

'Fuel?' I say. It crosses my mind to ask if she means coal, or logs, but I leave the thought unsaid, intimidated by her manner and her gun. Another sobbing scream comes from the small huddle of men ahead of the truck.

'Fuel,' she repeats, 'ammunition —' Then a shriek comes from the group of men clustered ahead of us (you wince again); our lieutenant glances in the direction of that awful wail, a tiny frown forming and disappearing on her face almost in the same instant as she says, '— medical supplies?' A look of calculation appears on her face.

I shrug. 'We have some first-aid material.' I nod towards the mares. 'The horses eat grain; that's their fuel.'

'Hmm,' she says.

'Lucius,' someone says from ahead of us. Our servant mutters something in return. Two men walk from the small group gathered on the road; one of the irregulars and the Factor from the village. He nods to me. Our lieutenant steps down from the carriage and walks to him, then stands with her back to us, head bowed, talking to the Factor. He glances up at us at one point, then walks away. The lieutenant returns, steps up again, pushing her cap back over her dun-coloured, scraped-back hair. 'Sir,' she says, smiling at me. 'You have a castle? You should have said.'

'Had,' I reply. I cannot help but glance back in its direction. 'We've left it.'

'And a title,' she goes on.

'A minor one,' I grant her.

'Well,' the lieutenant exclaims, gaze sweeping round her nearby men. 'What should we call you?'

'Just my name will do. Please call me Abel.' I hesitate. 'And you, ma'am?'

She looks, grinning, round her men, then back at me. 'You can call me lieutenant,' she tells me. To you she says, 'What's your name?' You sit, still staring at her.

'Morgan,' I tell her.

She remains looking at you for a moment, then slowly turns her gaze to me. 'Morgan,' she says slowly. Then another cry comes from the group huddled on the road. The lieutenant frowns and looks that way. 'Stomach wound,' she says quietly, two fingers tapping on the polished veneer of the carriage's door. She glances at the two bodies lying by the burning van. She sighs. 'Just first-aid stuff?' she asks me. I nod. She taps the buxom quilting on the inside of the door, then steps down and walks towards the group crouched ahead on the road. The knot of men opens, the soldiers making way for her.

A young uniformed man lies on his side in the centre of the group, hands clutched round his belly, shivering and moaning. Our lieutenant goes to him. She lays her long gun down on the road surface as she crouches, stroking the lad's head and talking quietly to him, one hand at his brow, the other doing something at her hip. She nods a couple of the others out of the way — they retreat — then bends down and kisses the young soldier full on the mouth. It looks a deep, lingering, almost passionate kiss; a string of saliva, caught in the sunlight slanting over the trees, connects them still as she pulls slowly away. Her lips have hardly left his when the pistol she has placed at the boy's temple fires. His head jerks as though kicked hard, his body spasms once then relaxes and some blood flicks up and out across the road. (I feel your hand on my shoulder, clutching at my skin through the layers of jacket, fleece and shirts.) The young soldier uncurls and flops loosely on to his back — mouth open, eyes closed.

The lieutenant stands promptly, shouldering her rifle. She spares the dead soldier a last look, then turns to one of those who had been clustered round the wounded lad. 'Mr Cuts: see he's buried properly.' She holsters the still smoking automatic pistol as she glances at the two civilian bodies lying by the burning van. 'Leave those two for the dogs.' She walks back to our carriage, shaking a grey kerchief out of a pocket and dabbing at her face, removing a few small spots of the youth's blood. She jumps up on to the step again, folding her elbows over the carriage door.

'I was asking about guns,' she says.

'I ha — I have a shotgun and rifle,' I tell her, my voice shaking.

I glance up the road. 'We may need them for —'

'Where are they?'

'Here.' I stand slowly, and look down at the box beneath the coachman's seat. The lieutenant nods to a soldier I had not noticed on the other side of the carriage, who jumps up, opens the box, searches it and hauls out the oil-heavy bag in which I stowed the guns; he checks inside, then jumps back down.

'The rifle is not of a military calibre,' I protest.

'Ah. That'll mean it can't shoot soldiers, then,' the lieutenant says, nodding ingenuously.

I glance round in the direction we were travelling. 'For pity's sake, we don't know what we might meet further on —'

'Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that,' she says, climbing a step higher on the carriage and giving another nod. The same soldier who took the guns clambers up beside me again. He proceeds to search me, efficiently but not roughly, while the lieutenant alternately grins at me and smiles at you, who look on, gloved hands clenched but visibly trembling. The soldier has a sour, almost fetid odour. He finds nothing he judges worth exhibiting, save the heavy bunch of keys I put into my pocket this morning. He throws them to the lieutenant, who catches them one-handed and looks at them, holding them up and turning them against the light.

'A mighty bunch of keys,' she says, then looks at me, inquiring.

'The castle's,' I tell her. I shrug, a little embarrassed. 'A keepsake.'

She rolls them clinking round her hand, then with a flourish pockets them in her torn jacket. 'You know, we need some place to hole up for a while, Abel,' she tells me. 'Bit of rest and recreation.' She smiles at you. 'How far is this castle?'

'It took us since dawn to get this far,' I tell her.

'Why did you leave? A castle ought to be protection, no?'

'It's small,' I tell her. 'Not very formidable. Not formidable at all. Just a house, really; it used to have a drawbridge, but now there's just an ordinary stone bridge across the moat.'

She makes a show of being impressed. 'Oh! A moat...' She draws smirks from the soldiers around her (and I notice for the first time how tired and beaten-looking many of them are, as some gather round us, some carry away the body of the young soldier and others start to usher the people behind us round our carriage and onwards down the road. Many of them seem wounded; some are limping, some have arms in frayed slings, some dirty bandages on their heads like grey bandanas.)

'The gate is not very strong,' I say, and feel that my words sound as lame as some of these grubby, motley soldiers. 'We were worried it would be sacked if we stayed and tried to hold out,' I continue. 'There were soldiers there; trying to take it, yesterday,' I conclude.

Her eyes narrow. 'What soldiers?'

'I don't know who they were.'

'Uniforms?' she asks. She looks slyly around. 'Any better than ours?'

'We didn't really see them.'

'What sort of heavy equipment did they have?' she asks, then when I hesitate waves one hand and suggests, 'Tanks, armoured cars, field guns...?'

I shrug. 'I don't know. They had guns; machine-guns, grenades...'

'Mortar,' you say, gulping, startled eyes looking from me to her.

I put my hand on yours. 'I'm not sure about that,' I tell our lieutenant. 'I think it was...a rifle grenade?'

Our lieutenant nods wisely, seems to think for a moment, then says, 'Let's take a look at your castle, Abel, shall we?'

'It's easy enough to find,' I tell her. I glance back the way we've come. Just —'

'No,' she says, opening the carriage door and swinging her short frame up and in to sit across from you. She levers some bags aside to get more comfortable and places the long gun across her knees. 'You take us back,' she tells me. 'I always wanted to ride in a carriage like this.' She pats the plush surface of the seat. 'And a little local knowledge can be useful.' She fishes inside her jacket — some sort of dark, ceremonial thing, torn in a few places, stained and smudged with dirt — then pulls out a gleaming silver case, opening it and offering it to you and me. 'Cigarette?'

We each refuse; she takes out a cigarette then puts the silver case away.

'I don't think going back is a good idea,' I say, trying to sound reasonable.

She is taking off her cap, pushing a hand through her short, mouse-brown curls. 'Well, too bad,' she says, frowning to inspect something inside her cap and running one finger round the inside rim. 'Consider yourself requisitioned.' She puts her cap back on and glances up at me with a small cold smile. 'Turn the carriage round and head back there.' She pulls a lighter from a breast pocket.

'But it took us since dawn,' I protest. 'And that was with the flow. It'll be after dark —'

She shakes her head quickly. 'We'll put the trucks in front.' She flicks the skip of her cap. 'People get out the way for a truck with a machine-gun; you'd be amazed. It won't take too long.' She makes a delicate twirling motion with one finger as she lights her cigarette with her other hand. 'Turn around, Abel,' she says through a cloud of exhaled smoke.

The tall truck ahead of us has been driven into the field; its diesel fuel is being siphoned off. We turn round in the gateway and a couple of jeeps and two six-wheel trucks with camouflaged canopies drive out of hiding in the forest track opposite. The soldiers who investigated the remains of the burning van load petrol cans and plastic drums into the back of one of the trucks, which go ahead of us back up the road, into the stream of refugees, horns blaring, a soldier standing proud of the leading truck's cab where a machine-gun points out. The people part and scatter before the trucks like water round the bows of a ship; it is all I can do to keep up. The mares break into a canter for the first time that day.

One of their jeeps follows immediately behind us. It too has a machine-gun, mounted on a post behind the front seats. The second jeep remains behind; two of the soldiers and our servants will bury the young soldier and then follow us.

The carriage rattles, sways and shakes; the damp wind courses round my face, cold and quick. The carriage's shadow, wheels flickering, is thrown long and spindly across the verge by the watery sun. The lieutenant looks pleased, and sits cross-legged with the gun balanced against one thigh, her cap on a bag beside her, her hand absently pushing through her short char-brown hair. She smiles at us both in turn. You look up at me, put one gloved hand up to mine.

Behind us, the refugees close up again and continue on their way. The burning van in the ditch makes a noise like a distant cough and a dark blister of smoke rolls upward into the greying sky, joining the smoke from all the other burning vehicles, farms and houses across the plain.

Copyright © 1997 by Iain Banks

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First Chapter

A raw wind picks and stirs small spirals of leaves across the broken grey surface of the road and dumps them scattering in the cold puddles of water at the bottom of the ditches. The leaves are yellow, red, ochre and brown; the colours of burning in the midst of this damp chill. Some leaves remain on the trees overlooking the road; no ice rims the ditches' mean trickle, and on both sides of the plain the hills are free of snow under a mid-day sun within a wide slice of cloud-free sky. But still it feels like all autumn's past. Northwards, in the distance, a few mountains hide behind a grey besieging fleet of clouds. Perhaps there is snow there, on those peaks, but we are not allowed to see it yet. The wind comes from the north, pushing veils of rain down the hills towards us. Across the fields to the south -- some trample-blonde and wasted, some harvested and earth-bare, a few pitted with craters -- columns of smoke climb, shifted aslant by the freshening breeze. For a moment, the wind smells both of rain and burning.

Those around us, our fellow refugees, mutter and stamp their feet on the greasy surface of the road. We are, or were, a stream of humanity, a surge of outcast people, arterial and quick in this quiet landscape, but now something holds us up. The wind dies again, and on its ebb I smell the sweat of unwashed bodies and the scent of the two horses putting our makeshift wagon.

You reach up from behind me and hold my elbow, squeezing.

I turn back to you, brushing a wisp of jet-black hair away from your brow. Around you are clustered the bags and chests we thought to take, stuffed with whatever we hoped might prove useful for us but not too tempting to others. A few more precious items are hidden within and beneath the carriage. You have been sitting with your back to me in the open carriage, looking back along our route, perhaps trying to see the home we left, but now you are twisting round on the seat, trying to see past me, a frown troubling your expression like a flaw in a statue's marble face.

'I don't know why we've stopped,' I tell you. I stand up for a moment, looking out over the heads of the people in front of us. A tall-bodied truck fifty metres ahead hides the view beyond; the road here is straight for a kilometre or so, between the fields and the woods our fields, our woods, our lands, as I still think of them.

This morning, when we and our few servants joined the flow of people, carts and vehicles, it stretched unbroken out of sight both up and down the road; a continuity of the displaced, all moving, shuffling, eyes cast downwards, trundling from roughly west to vaguely east. I had never seen such a mass of people; a river of souls upon that road. They reminded me of childhood paper-people, outlines cut from compressed newspapers and then pulled out, all linked, all similar, all slightly different, all taking their shape from what has been removed and -- fragile, flammable, disposable -- by their nature demanding some suitable ill-use. We joined them easily enough, fitting in yet standing out.

Some noises come from ahead. They may be shouts; then I hear the dry crackle of small-arms fire, sparse and sharp in the resuming wind. My mouth becomes dry. The people around us -- families, mostly, little groups of kin -- seem to shrink in on themselves. I can hear a child crying. A couple of our servants, leading the horses, glance back at us. After a while, a new, closer smudge of smoke rises from beyond the tall truck ahead. A little later still, the queue of people and vehicles starts to move again. I flick the reins and the two brown mares clop onwards. The tall truck's exhaust gives up a cloud of smoke.

'Were those shots?' you ask, turning and standing and looking past my arm. I smell your scent, the soap from your last bath this morning in the castle, like a floral memory of summer.

'I think so.'

The mares edge us onward. The smell of the truck's diesel fumes lies briefly across the wind. Tied, hidden, under the carriage there are six drums of diesel, two of petrol and one of oil. We left our vehicles in the castle yard, reckoning the horses and this carriage could take us further towards whatever safety's to be found than could the motors. There is more to that calculation than just miles per gallon or kilometres per litre; from all the rumours, and indeed from the little we've seen so far, working vehicles, and particularly those capable of going off-road, attract the attention of exactly those we are currently trying to avoid. Just so the castle, seemingly so strong, only draws trouble to it. I have to keep telling myself -- and you -- that we have done the best thing, leaving our home to save it; those no doubt already picking over it are welcome to what they can carry.

The smoke ahead of us grows thicker, comes closer. I think perhaps a more possessive, less protective soul than mine would have burned the castle, this morning, when we left. But I could not. It would, no doubt, have felt good to deprive those threatening us their stolen reward, but still I could not do it.

Uniformed men with guns -- uniforms and weapons both various, irregular -- are shouting at the tall truck ahead of us. It lumbers off the road and into the entrance to a field, letting those behind it pass on by. The column of refugees ahead, a stream of folk, all heads and hats and hoods and wobbling piled-up carts, stretches towards the horizon.

We come to the source of the smoke, and by that rising column, ours stops again. By the road there is a burning van; it lies tipped in the ditch, not quite on its side; an open trailer behind it sticks its rear into the air, its contents spilled from beneath a dark tarpaulin. The van pulses with fire, flames spilling from its broken screen and windows, smoke bustling from its flung-open rear doors. Our fellow travellers, at least those on foot, bunch to the far side of the road as they pass it, perhaps fearing an explosion. More uniformed men are picking at the scatter of goods spilled from the van's trailer, oblivious to the nearby fire. Spread on the ditch-bank near the van, what looked at first like two more piles of rags are both bodies; one face down and one, a woman, staring up to the sky with wide, immobile eyes. A brown-black stain discolours her jacket down one side. You stand, looking, too. A pitiful, desperate moaning comes from somewhere ahead.

Then, beyond the smoke and flames and the van's tilted roof, where a luggage rack had broken free and spread bags, drums and containers across the coarse grass and stunted bushes there is movement.

It was there we saw the lieutenant first, rising from beyond the wreck's full bloody flames, her figure distorted by that rising heat as though through twisting water; a rock to foul the flow.

A shot comes from where the tall truck is, stopped at the gate leading to a field ahead, opposite the entrance to a forest track. People duck around us, the horses start momentarily and you flinch, but I am held by the gaze of the figure beyond the flames. Some more shots crack out, and I turn at last, gaze torn, to watch people stumbling from the tall truck, hands raised or on their heads as more men in uniforms herd them away, drop the tailgate with a thud and start to rummage through the vehicle. When I look back, you are seated again, and the uniformed woman I saw through the flames is stepping, flanked by two of these irregular soldiers, to the door of our open carriage.

Our lieutenant though I'll admit we did not think of her as such then is of average build, but with an air of gracefulness about her movements. Her plain face is dark, nearly swarthy, her eyes grey under black brows. Her attire is composed of many different types of uniforms; her stained, scuffed boots come from one army, her torn fatigues from another, her grimy, holed jacket from yet one more, and her crumpled cap -- sporting wings as part of its insignia -- appears to have originated in an air force, but her gun long and dark, sickle-shaped magazines neatly taped back-to-back and upside down is spotlessly clean and gleaming. She smiles at you and tips her cap briefly, then turns to me. The long gun rests easily on her hip, barrel threatening the sky.

'And you, sir?' she asks. Her voice possesses a roughness I find perversely pleasant, even as my skin crawls at a buried menace in her words, a promissory threat. Did she suspect, did she foresee something even then? Did our carriage mark us out within that crowd, a jewel set in a baser band, appealing to the predator in her?

'What, ma'am?' I ask, as somebody screams. I glance away to see a group of the soldiers gathered around somebody lying on the roadside, a few metres in front of the burning van. The refugees file past this group as well, keeping well away.

'Have you anything we might want?' the uniformed woman asks, swinging lightly up on to the carriage's kick-step and -- with another smile at you -- leaning over to lift the edge of a travel rug with the muzzle of her long gun.

'I don't know,' I say slowly. 'What is it you want?'

'Guns,' she shrugs, glancing, eyes narrowed, at me. 'Anything precious,' she says to you, then uses the long gun's muzzle to peek under another rug across the carriage from where you sit, pale-faced, wide-eyed, staring at her. 'Fuel?' she says, looking at me again.

'Fuel?' I say. It crosses my mind to ask if she means coal, or logs, but I leave the thought unsaid, intimidated by her manner and her gun. Another sobbing scream comes from the small huddle of men ahead of the truck.

'Fuel,' she repeats, 'ammunition --' Then a shriek comes from the group of men clustered ahead of us you wince again; our lieutenant glances in the direction of that awful wail, a tiny frown forming and disappearing on her face almost in the same instant as she says, '-- medical supplies?' A look of calculation appears on her face.

I shrug. 'We have some first-aid material.' I nod towards the mares. 'The horses eat grain; that's their fuel.'

'Hmm,' she says.

'Lucius,' someone says from ahead of us. Our servant mutters something in return. Two men walk from the small group gathered on the road; one of the irregulars and the Factor from the village. He nods to me. Our lieutenant steps down from the carriage and walks to him, then stands with her back to us, head bowed, talking to the Factor. He glances up at us at one point, then walks away. The lieutenant returns, steps up again, pushing her cap back over her dun-coloured, scraped-back hair. 'Sir,' she says, smiling at me. 'You have a castle? You should have said.'

'Had,' I reply. I cannot help but glance back in its direction. 'We've left it.'

'And a title,' she goes on.

'A minor one,' I grant her.

'Well,' the lieutenant exclaims, gaze sweeping round her nearby men. 'What should we call you?'

'Just my name will do. Please call me Abel.' I hesitate. 'And you, ma'am?'

She looks, grinning, round her men, then back at me. 'You can call me lieutenant,' she tells me. To you she says, 'What's your name?' You sit, still staring at her.

'Morgan,' I tell her.

She remains looking at you for a moment, then slowly turns her gaze to me. 'Morgan,' she says slowly. Then another cry comes from the group huddled on the road. The lieutenant frowns and looks that way. 'Stomach wound,' she says quietly, two fingers tapping on the polished veneer of the carriage's door. She glances at the two bodies lying by the burning van. She sighs. 'Just first-aid stuff?' she asks me. I nod. She taps the buxom quilting on the inside of the door, then steps down and walks towards the group crouched ahead on the road. The knot of men opens, the soldiers making way for her.

A young uniformed man lies on his side in the centre of the group, hands clutched round his belly, shivering and moaning. Our lieutenant goes to him. She lays her long gun down on the road surface as she crouches, stroking the lad's head and talking quietly to him, one hand at his brow, the other doing something at her hip. She nods a couple of the others out of the way -- they retreat -- then bends down and kisses the young soldier full on the mouth. It looks a deep, lingering, almost passionate kiss; a string of saliva, caught in the sunlight slanting over the trees, connects them still as she pulls slowly away. Her lips have hardly left his when the pistol she has placed at the boy's temple fires. His head jerks as though kicked hard, his body spasms once then relaxes and some blood flicks up and out across the road. I feel your hand on my shoulder, clutching at my skin through the layers of jacket, fleece and shirts. The young soldier uncurls and flops loosely on to his back -- mouth open, eyes closed.

The lieutenant stands promptly, shouldering her rifle. She spares the dead soldier a last look, then turns to one of those who had been clustered round the wounded lad. 'Mr Cuts: see he's buried properly.' She holsters the still smoking automatic pistol as she glances at the two civilian bodies lying by the burning van. 'Leave those two for the dogs.' She walks back to our carriage, shaking a grey kerchief out of a pocket and dabbing at her face, removing a few small spots of the youth's blood. She jumps up on to the step again, folding her elbows over the carriage door.

'I was asking about guns,' she says.

'I ha -- I have a shotgun and rifle,' I tell her, my voice shaking.

I glance up the road. 'We may need them for --'

'Where are they?'

'Here.' I stand slowly, and look down at the box beneath the coachman's seat. The lieutenant nods to a soldier I had not noticed on the other side of the carriage, who jumps up, opens the box, searches it and hauls out the oil-heavy bag in which I stowed the guns; he checks inside, then jumps back down.

'The rifle is not of a military calibre,' I protest.

'Ah. That'll mean it can't shoot soldiers, then,' the lieutenant says, nodding ingenuously.

I glance round in the direction we were travelling. 'For pity's sake, we don't know what we might meet further on --'

'Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that,' she says, climbing a step higher on the carriage and giving another nod. The same soldier who took the guns clambers up beside me again. He proceeds to search me, efficiently but not roughly, while the lieutenant alternately grins at me and smiles at you, who look on, gloved hands clenched but visibly trembling. The soldier has a sour, almost fetid odour. He finds nothing he judges worth exhibiting, save the heavy bunch of keys I put into my pocket this morning. He throws them to the lieutenant, who catches them one-handed and looks at them, holding them up and turning them against the light.

'A mighty bunch of keys,' she says, then looks at me, inquiring.

'The castle's,' I tell her. I shrug, a little embarrassed. 'A keepsake.'

She rolls them clinking round her hand, then with a flourish pockets them in her torn jacket. 'You know, we need some place to hole up for a while, Abel,' she tells me. 'Bit of rest and recreation.' She smiles at you. 'How far is this castle?'

'It took us since dawn to get this far,' I tell her.

'Why did you leave? A castle ought to be protection, no?'

'It's small,' I tell her. 'Not very formidable. Not formidable at all. just a house, really; it used to have a drawbridge, but now there's just an ordinary stone bridge across the moat.'

She makes a show of being impressed. 'Oh! A moat...' She draws smirks from the soldiers around her and I notice for the first time how tired and beaten-looking many of them are, as some gather round us, some carry away the body of the young soldier and others start to usher the people behind us round our carriage and onwards down the road. Many of them seem wounded; some are limping, some have arms in frayed slings, some dirty bandages on their heads like grey bandanas.

'The gate is not very strong,' I say, and feel that my words sound as lame as some of these grubby, motley soldiers. 'We were worried it would be sacked if we stayed and tried to hold out,' I continue. 'There were soldiers there; trying to take it, yesterday,' I conclude.

Her eyes narrow. 'What soldiers?'

'I don't know who they were.'

'Uniforms?' she asks. She looks slyly around. 'Any better than ours?'

'We didn't really see them.'

'What sort of heavy equipment did they have?' she asks, then when I hesitate waves one hand and suggests, 'Tanks, armoured cars, field guns...?'

I shrug. 'I don't know. They had guns; machine-guns, grenades...'

'Mortar,' you say, gulping, startled eyes looking from me to her.

I put my hand on yours. 'I'm not sure about that,' I tell our lieutenant. 'I think it was...a rifle grenade?'

Our lieutenant nods wisely, seems to think for a moment, then says, 'Let's take a look at your castle, Abel, shall we?'

'It's easy enough to find,' I tell her. I glance back the way we've come. Just --'

'No,' she says, opening the carriage door and swinging her short frame up and in to sit across from you. She levers some bags aside to get more comfortable and places the long gun across her knees. 'You take us back,' she tells me. 'I always wanted to ride in a carriage like this.' She pats the plush surface of the seat. 'And a little local knowledge can be useful.' She fishes inside her jacket -- some sort of dark, ceremonial thing, torn in a few places, stained and smudged with dirt -- then pulls out a gleaming silver case, opening it and offering it to you and me. 'Cigarette?'

We each refuse; she takes out a cigarette then puts the silver case away.

'I don't think going back is a good idea,' I say, trying to sound reasonable.

She is taking off her cap, pushing a hand through her short, mouse-brown curls. 'Well, too bad,' she says, frowning to inspect something inside her cap and running one finger round the inside rim. 'Consider yourself requisitioned.' She puts her cap back on and glances up at me with a small cold smile. 'Turn the carriage round and head back there.' She pulls a lighter from a breast pocket.

'But it took us since dawn,' I protest. 'And that was with the flow. It'll be after dark --'

She shakes her head quickly. 'We'll put the trucks in front.' She flicks the skip of her cap. 'People get out the way for a truck with a machine-gun; you'd be amazed. It won't take too long.' She makes a delicate twirling motion with one finger as she lights her cigarette with her other hand. 'Turn around, Abel,' she says through a cloud of exhaled smoke.

The tall truck ahead of us has been driven into the field; its diesel fuel is being siphoned off. We turn round in the gateway and a couple of jeeps and two six-wheel trucks with camouflaged canopies drive out of hiding in the forest track opposite. The soldiers who investigated the remains of the burning van load petrol cans and plastic drums into the back of one of the trucks, which go ahead of us back up the road, into the stream of refugees, horns blaring, a soldier standing proud of the leading truck's cab where a machine-gun points out. The people part and scatter before the trucks like water round the bows of a ship; it is all I can do to keep up. The mares break into a canter for the first time that day.

One of their jeeps follows immediately behind us. It too has a machine-gun, mounted on a post behind the front seats. The second jeep remains behind; two of the soldiers and our servants will bury the young soldier and then follow us.

The carriage rattles, sways and shakes; the damp wind courses round my face, cold and quick. The carriage's shadow, wheels flickering, is thrown long and spindly across the verge by the watery sun. The lieutenant looks pleased, and sits cross-legged with the gun balanced against one thigh, her cap on a bag beside her, her hand absently pushing through her short char-brown hair. She smiles at us both in turn. You look up at me, put one gloved hand up to mine.

Behind us, the refugees close up again and continue on their way. The burning van in the ditch makes a noise like a distant cough and a dark blister of smoke rolls upward into the greying sky, joining the smoke from all the other burning vehicles, farms and houses across the plain.

Copyright © 1997 by Iain Banks

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Dark and poetic - But not for everyone.

    A Song of Stone is brutally dark. The writing is beautiful and poetic. The subject matter is horrific. The story takes place during a no name war in a no name country and is told from the view of Abel as a first person narrative.

    Abel and his lover Morgan are nobles. They attempt to abandon their castle and flee to safety disguised as refugees when they are captured and taken back to their castle by a lieutenant and her band of soldiers. This is where the cat and mouse game begins. The story contains graphic violence, sex, incest, rape and human cruelty at it's worse.

    The further I got into the story the more it seemed to have a hold on me. The closer I got to the end the more I felt a need to finish it. By the time I got to the last chapter I wanted it to not end I no longer wanted to know, but still I had a need to know.

    When I finished reading A Song of Stone it felt as if my psyche was savagely beaten and bruised, it may take weeks for my mental health and well being to recover, if ever.

    When I closed the book I immediately wanted to read something else but I'm not sure if it's to dilute the feeling A Song of Stone left me with or if it's because the writing was so good (and deep) that it ignited something in me that makes me want to read and read and read.

    I would recommend to ADULTS ONLY, that have read the reviews and are still interested. Not recommended as a first Iain (M.) Banks read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2008

    Not a casual read

    This book was well written and beautifully poetic. I really liked the fact that the author doesn't spoon-feed everything to the reader and one must look between the lines to appreciate and understand the nuances of what is going on. It's a look into one man's perspective on that which can either tear apart or build one up: that between life and death, morality and consequence, loss and acceptance, and the shades of grey.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2002

    Not the worst book I have ever read

    I loved The Wasp Factory for its macabre style and so I figured I would try another Banks book. The Song of Stone was not worth reading. There really was no point to it. Much of the symbolism was trite, weak, and obviouis. And besides all of that nothing really happens. I didn't care at all for any of the characters and I hoped throughout most of the book that something clever would come out of his internal dialogue with his wife/love (it isn't really clear on what she is), but nothing really comes from that either. Get The Wasp Factory if you haven't read it, you will enjoy it, but skip The Song of Stone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 1999

    Iain Banks is not perfect

    Perhaps Banks wrote this several years ago, and only released it recently to make money? It is not nearly as good as Wasp Factory, or Against a Dark Background, or even the also-disappointing Bridge.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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