So I finally did finish the book, and while I did not enjoy reading the first bits of it, I really enjoyed the last 250-200pp of the book. I think. I'm also going to blame most of my issues with the book on the fact that it's the author's first soiree with sci-fi... I think.
The main character, Horza, is a shape-shifter who has volunteered to be in the war against the Culture. The Culture is, basically, a society descended from humanity who, in their hedonistic, easy-going, and fruitful lives, spend most of their effort gallivanting about space and mucking about in societies to bring those planets/races over to seeing things their way (think polar opposite of the Prime Directive). Horza finds this overbearing and joins with the Idirans, a three legged religious-warrior race that doesn't quite agree with the Culture's desire to assimilate them.
Not too far into the book, after we've been introduced to Horza, he gets a mission from the Idirans, and instead of the author getting right to it, we get taken on some sort of (long) pirate adventure through the stars that annoys me. It doesn't seriously advance the plot, and we don't get a look at the races/societies with the war, we don't learn anything significant about anything or anyone. For such a dense and long read, I should know more about the Idirans and the Culture, but I don't. I liked the latter part of the book because we finally get down to the action that matters and actually get to know more about the characters and races in play.
It's not a bad book, it's just missing something
. I did like the characters (for the most part, especially the deeply sarcastic and moody drone), and I like the darkness of the novel. I just wanted more relevant action or information. It felt unfocused for most of it.
I haven't read the Player of Games, which I understand is much better, and I think I liked the end (especially the appendices, believe it or not) enough to go ahead and try the more recommended book.