4.5 Stars. I know it's going to sound weird, but this is possibly one of my most favorite books ever, but I can't bring myself to say "5-stars-wow." I'll explain that in a bit.
Apparently (I did some googling after finishing this book), this was Banks's first Culture novel written, even though it was the third published. Consider Phlebas was ok, I enjoyed Player of Games, but this book... THIS book was amazing.
It's got two narratives running, one forward in time, one back. We have Cheradinine Zkalwe working for Culture's Special Circumstances (at the behest of Diziet Sma, who might be one of my favorite characters ever, btw). He's helping nudge (through war-like means) planets into the Culture. He's never really sure what war he's fighting, and whether or not he's supposed to win, and while we're watching that narrative, the alternative narrative is flashing backwards in time to the whats/hows/whos that created his tortured soul.
The characters of Cheradinine Zakalwe, Diziet Sma and Skaffen Amiskaw (the Culture's primary snarky drone in this book) are absolutely fantastic and work really well together.
Twisty, turny, action packed, internal motivations, crazy storylines, very compelling. The writing is fast, witty, intelligent and soul sucking. There are many layers of hilarity, horror, sadness, and everything in between. Lots of <3<br/>
And now for the spoilers, which I will keep vague(ish), but I don't want to ruin anything for anyone.
So, I'm one of those people who is easily surprised in a book, I don't look for "twists" although I'm always looking for explanations. Why is the chair such a B.F.D.? kind of things. there were two scenes that just sucker punched me, on in shock (well played, Banks), the other in surprise (though, looking back, it had been foreshadowed). But there was something about the "twist" that left me feeling a little lacking. Maybe I should just learn to zen and let it go.