My first experience with Iain M. Banks' Culture cycle was Consider Phlebas back in 2009. Regardless of its shortcomings, I found the novel to be a work of vast scope and rare imagination. The worldbuilding, especially, was fascinating. The Culture and the Idiran Empire are fighting a galaxy-spanning war; the Idirans fighting for their Faith, while the Culture fights for their right to exist. But for all of its strengths, Consider Phlebas wasn't necessarily an easy book to get into.
Most Iain M. Banks fans opine that The Player of Games is an easier read and makes for a better entry point into the series, so I knew that this was the one I'd read next. As to why it took this long for me to finally give it a shot, I have no excuse. Too many books, too little time, I reckon. And yet, after finishing C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen I wanted to give another "older" scifi title a go. So here we are!
Here's the blurb:
The Culture--a humanoid/machine symbiotic society--has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.
Once more, though the worldbuilding is probably not as dense as in Consider Phlebas, it remains my favorite aspect of The Player of Games. I particularly liked everything that had to do with the Empire of Azad, where a complex game is used to determine social rank and political status. Known as the game of Azad, the game itself is subtle and convoluted and the strategy used by the players reflects their own personal political and philosophical outlook. It's a tactical game played on three-dimensional boards of different shapes and dimensions, and the winner is named emperor The bulk of the action takes place on the Empire's home planet of Eä and on Echronedal, the Fire Planet, where the last games of the tournament are played and where the emperor is crowned. Surprisingly, and that was likely my biggest disappointment, we learn very little about the Culture. I was expecting more in that regard. . .
The characterization was a bit uneven. I found that Gurgeh was ill-suited to carry the full story on his shoulders. Although he has his moments, he simply wasn't a compelling main protagonist. In addition, how the drone Mawhrin-Skel contrived to put Gurgeh in a position to be blackmailed so it could rejoin the ranks of the Culture's Special Circumstances (an organisation part of Contact, which is a bigger institution that coordinates Culture interactions with other civilisations) and send him to the Empire of Azad was more than a little far-fetched. Gurgeh's interaction with Flere-Imsaho, another drone sent to accompany him and help him in case things go south makes for some fun scenes. It was also interesting to witness Gurgeh's outlook on what he needed to do and his approach to the game change the more the tournament progressed and the more interactions he had with other players and Emperor Nicosar.
The pace is mostly fluid throughout the novel. There are a few rougher spots here and there, but for the most part the rhythm is never an issue. And though Gurgeh is not the most endearing or likeable of fellows, following his progress through the game of Azad is never dull. The conclusion of The Player of Games was satisfying, but the final revelation was telegraphed and came as no surprise to me. Which robbed the ending of a bit of its impact.
Having said that, for the most part I enjoyed reading this book and went through it in just a few sittings. Weighing in at 391 pages, The Player of Games is a relatively quick read. It's just not something that stays with you for very long afterward. It's entertaining, witty, intelligent, and well-written. But ultimately, it's not a novel that makes you want to read more Culture titles. Which is why I'm not sure if it's a better starting point for newbies than Consider Phlebas turned out to be.