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Inversions
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Inversions

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Author: Iain M. Banks
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2007
Orbit, 1998
Series: The Culture Cycle: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Science-Fantasy
First Contact
Contemporary Fantasy
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Synopsis

Iain M. Banks, the international bestselling author of The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas, is a true original, a literary visionary whose brilliant speculative fiction has transported us into worlds of unbounded imagination. Now, in his acclaimed new novel, Banks presents an engrossing portrait of an alien world, and of two very different people bound by a startling and mysterious secret.

On a backward world with six moons, an alert spy reports on the doings of one Dr. Vosill, who has mysteriously become the personal physician to the king despite being a foreigner and, even more unthinkably, a woman. Vosill has more enemies than she first realizes. But then she also has more remedies in hand than those who wish her ill can ever guess.

Elsewhere, in another palace across the mountains, a man named DeWar serves as chief bodyguard to the Protector General of Tassasen, a profession he describes as the business of "assassinating assassins." DeWar, too, has his enemies, but his foes strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more direct.

No one trusts the doctor, and the bodyguard trusts no one, but is there a hidden commonality linking their disparate histories? Spiraling around a central core of mystery, deceit, love, and betrayal. Inversions is a dazzling work of science fiction from a versatile and imaginative author writing at the height of his remarkable powers.


Excerpt

Chapter One: The Doctor

Master, it was in the evening of the third day of the southern planting season that the questioner's assistant came for the Doctor to take her to the hidden chamber, where the chief torturer awaited.

I was sitting in the living room of the Doctor's apartments using a pestle and mortar to grind some ingredients for one of the Doctor's potions. Concentrating on this, it took me a moment or two fully to collect my wits when I heard the loud and aggressive knocking at the door, and I upset a small censer on my way to the door. This was the cause both of the delay in opening the door and any curses which Unoure, the questioner's assistant, may have heard. These swear-words were not directed at him, neither was I asleep or even remotely groggy, as I trust my good Master will believe, no matter what the fellow Unoure -- a shifty and unreliable person, by all accounts -- may say.

The Doctor was in her study, as was usual at that time in the evening. I entered the Doctor's workshop, where she keeps the two great cabinets containing the powders, creams, ointments, draughts and various instruments that are the stock of her trade as well as the pair of tables which support a variety of burners, stoves, retorts and flasks. Occasionally she treats patients in here too, when it becomes her surgery. While the unpleasant-smelling Unoure waited in the living room, wiping his nose on his already filthy sleeve and peering round with the look of one choosing what to steal, I went through the workshop and tapped at the door to the study which also serves as her bedroom.

"Oelph?" the Doctor asked.

"Yes, mistress."

"Come in."

I heard the quiet thud of a heavy book being closed, and smiled to myself.

The Doctor's study was dark and smelled of the sweet istra flower whose leaves she habitually burned in roof-hung censers. I felt my way through the gloom. Of course I know the arrangement of the Doctor's study intimately -- better than she might imagine, thanks to the inspired foresight and judicious cunning of my Master -- but the Doctor is prone to leaving chairs, stools and shelf-steps lying where one might walk, and accordingly I had to feel my way across the room to where a small candle flame indicated her presence, sitting at her desk in front of a heavily curtained window. She sat upright in her chair, stretching her back and rubbing her eyes. The hand-thick, fore-arm-square bulk of her journal lay on the desk in front of her. The great book was closed and locked, but even in that cave-darkness I noticed that the little chain on the hasp was swinging to and fro. A pen stood in the ink well, whose cap was open. The Doctor yawned and adjusted the fine chain round her neck which holds the key for the journal.

My Master knows from my many previous reports that I believe the Doctor may be writing an account of her experiences here in Haspide to the people of her homeland in Drezen.

The Doctor obviously wishes to keep her writings secret. However, sometimes she forgets that I am in the room, usually when she has set me the task of tracking down some reference in one of the books in her extravagantly endowed library and I have been silently doing so for some time. From the little that I have been able to glimpse of her writings on such occasions I have determined that when she writes in her journal she does not always use Haspidian or Imperial -- though there are passages in both -- but sometimes uses an alphabet I have never seen before.

I believe my Master has thought of taking steps to check with other natives of Drezen regarding whether, in such instances, the Doctor writes in Drezeni or not, and to this end I am attempting to commit to memory as much as I can of the Doctor's relevant journal writings whenever I can. On this occasion, however, I was unable to gain a view of the pages she had surely been working on.

It is still my wish to be able to serve my Master better in this regard and I would respectfully again submit that the temporary removal of her journal would allow a skilled locksmith to open the journal without damaging it and a better copy of her secret writings to be taken, so allowing the matter to be settled. This could easily be done when the Doctor is elsewhere in the palace or better still elsewhere in the city, or even when she is taking one of her frequent baths, which tend to be prolonged (it was during one of her baths that I procured for my Master one of the Doctor's scalpels from her medicine bag, which has now been delivered. I would add that I was careful to do this immediately after a visit to the Poor Hospital, so that someone there would be suspected). However, I do of course bow to my Master's superior judgment in this regard.

The Doctor frowned at me. "You're shaking," she said. And indeed I was, for the sudden appearance of the torturer's assistant had been undeniably unsettling. The Doctor glanced past me towards the door to the surgery, which I had left open so that Unoure might be able to hear our voices and so perhaps be dissuaded from any mischief he might be contemplating. "Who's that?" she asked.

"Who's what, mistress?" I asked, watching her close the cap of the ink well.

"I heard somebody cough."

"Oh, that is Unoure, the questioner's assistant, mistress. He's come to fetch you."

"To go where?"

"To the hidden chamber. Master Nolieti has sent for you."

She looked at me without speaking for a moment. "The chief torturer," she said evenly, and nodded. "Am I in trouble, Oelph?" she asked, laying one arm across the thick hide cover of her journal, as if looking to provide, or gain, protection.

"Oh no," I told her. "You're to bring your bag. And medicines." I glanced round at the door to the surgery, edged with light from the living room. A cough came from that direction, a cough that sounded like the sort of cough one makes when one wants to remind somebody that one is waiting impatiently. "I think it's urgent," I whispered.

"Hmm. Do you think chief torturer Nolieti has a cold?" the Doctor asked, rising from her chair and pulling on her long jacket, which had been hanging on the back of the seat.

I helped her on with her black jacket. "No, mistress, I think there is probably somebody being put to the question who is, umm, unwell."

"I see," she said, stamping her feet into her boots and then straightening. I was struck again by the Doctor's physical presence, as I often am. She is tall for a woman, though not exceptionally so, and while for a female she is broad at the shoulder I have seen fish-wives and net-women who look more powerful. No, what seems most singular about her, I think, is her carriage, the way she comports herself.

I have been afforded tantalising half-glimpses of her -- after one of her many baths -- in a thin shift with the light behind her, stepping in a coil of powdered, scented air from one room to another, her arms raised to secure a towel about her long, damp red hair, and I have watched her during grand court occasions when she has worn a formal gown and danced as lightly and delicately -- and with as demure an expression -- as any expensively tutored season-maiden, and I freely confess that I have found myself drawn to her in a physical sense just as any man (youthful or not) might be to a woman of such healthy and generous good looks. Yet at the same time there is something about her deportment which I -- and I suspect most other males -- find off-putting, and even slightly threatening. A certain immodest forthrightness in her bearing is the cause of this, perhaps, plus the suspicion that while she pays flawless lip service to the facts of life which dictate the accepted and patent preeminence of the male, she does so with a sort of unwarranted humour, producing in us males the unsettlingly contrary feeling that she is indulging us.

The Doctor leaned over the desk and opened the curtains and the shutters to the mid-eve Seigen glow. In the faint wash of light from the windows I noticed the small plate of biscuits and cheese at the edge of the Doctor's desk, on the far side of the journal. Her old, battered dagger lay also on the plate, its dull edges smeared with grease.

She picked up the knife, licked its blade and then, after smacking her lips as she gave it a final wipe on her kerchief, slipped the dagger into the top of her right boot. "Come on," she said, "mustn't keep the chief torturer waiting."

"Is this really necessary?" the Doctor asked, looking at the blindfold held in questioner's assistant Unoure's grubby hands. He wore a long butcher's apron of blood-stained hide over his filthy shirt and loose, greasy-looking trousers. The black blindfold had been produced from a long pocket in the leather apron.

Unoure grinned, displaying a miscellany of diseased, discoloured teeth and dark gaps where teeth ought to have been. The Doctor winced. Her own teeth are so even that the first time I saw them I naturally assumed they were a particularly fine false set.

"Rules," Unoure said, looking at the Doctor's chest. She drew her long jacket closed across her shirt. "You're a foreigner," he told her.

The Doctor sighed, glancing at me.

"A foreigner," I told Unoure forcibly, "who holds the King's life in her hands almost every day."

"Doesn't matter," the fellow said, shrugging. He sniffed and went to wipe his nose with the blindfold, then looked at the expression on the Doctor's face and changed his mind, using his sleeve again instead. "That's the orders. Got to hurry," he said, glancing at the doors.

We were at the entrance to the palace's lower levels. The corridor behind us led off from the little-used passageway beyond the west-wing kitchens and the wine cellars. It was quite dark. A narrow circular light-well overhead cast a dusty sheen of slatey light over us and the tall, rusted metal doors, while a couple of candles burned dimly further down the corridor.

"Very well," the Doctor said. She leaned over a little and made a show of inspecting the blindfold and Unoure's hands. "But I'm not wearing that, and you're not tying it." She turned to me and pulled a fresh kerchief from a pocket in...

Copyright © 1998 by Iain M. Banks


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