So this is my second foray into the Culture books by Banks. It's definitely an easier read than my first (Consider Phlebas), which I slogged my way through. After reading this book, I appreciate the first more, because I feel like I had a much more solid ground for understanding the Culture. It's explained better in Consider Phlebas, but this one is easier to read, if more sparse about the Culture. I would never be able to figure out what order other people should read these books. They are stand alone, so I suppose it's preference.
I adore the Culture. It's so pretty and dirty at the same time. The Culture is an "advanced" and utopian society. There is no lack of resources, there is no famine, no conflict, no problems. Its citizenry gets to pretty much do what they want, enjoy what they want, and there are few?no? laws to guide them. Why would you need them? You have what you need and you lead a productive life (whatever that may be).
At the same time, they have divisions of their military that just take over and destroy other civilizations, but don't you mind that, just enjoy your beautiful living space and your excellent medical care while we occasionally blackmail people here and there into destroying entire systems. Ignore the force behind the pretty curtain.
The opening passage to this books beautifully tells you *everything* about this while telling you nothing, and it's just wonderfully written. It makes me squee with happy when authors write this well.
Jernau Morat Gurgeh plays games. He has played all the games many times over and is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) game player in the Culture. Special agents of Culture have told him about a game in an empire known as Azad. This game is the society, the glue, everything that is the empire. How well you play the game determines your place in society (all the way to the Emperor) and determines everything. The Empire of Azad didn't just take it's name from the game, it is the game. And would Gurgeh like to try to play this game (even though he didn't grow up in the society and culture that would have groomed him for play)? The answer, of course, is Fuck Yeah. Shenanigans (and game playing) ensue.
I adore this gaming mechanism (like Quis in the Skolian Saga books), and Banks does a great job using the game here. He doesn't kill himself trying to overdo the complications and explanations of the game, but he keeps things sophisticated enough to be interesting. I love the characters from the ridiculously named ships, the delightfully bitchy AIs, the Culture and the alien game players. I love that he develops his alien societies to be different. Culture may be beautiful with hidden barbarity, but we've got another empire that's just horrifically barbaric, with one sex dominated and abusing the "lesser" two sexes. The rape and torture porn for the upper echelons to enjoy, the subjugation of anyone not in the privileged classes, much like what we've experienced here with our own societies. There aren't any punches pulled.
It's a great book, and I"m definitely going to keep reading the series.