The Player of Games

I found Iain M Banks when we were in the UK – reminds me that I should get around to talking at least about the books I read over there, if not about the whole trip. It feels like it was such a long time ago, now, though – 10 weeks in fact. Anyway: I just finished his The Player of Games the second of the Culture novels. I think I’ve decided they can be safely read out of order, which is nice – now I can just go nuts at the second hand book shop, and buy whatever they happen to have.

It’s a great book. Banks is a great storyteller – you know, after you’ve read one, that there is a fair bit more going on than is obvious at the first and that this will be revealed in clever ways, and pretty much logically too: that is, there won’t be ta-dah! moments just to get the hero out of a sticky spot. I have to say, though, that I found the conclusion to this one just a bit anti-climactic. I don’t know what else I was expecting (well, yes actually I do, and it has a lot to do with Janny Wurts and the Empire books), but it wasn’t what happened.

Getting to that conclusion, though, was fun. The main character isn’t much of a hero – just an every-day Culture dude, who happens to be about the best games-player in the entirety of the Culture. He gets contracted, basically, to go and play the highest-stakes game he’s ever come across, and the book is about him learning it and playing it. Which sounds daft, except that the stakes are who gets to Emperor of Azad.

One of the more interesting, if surprisingly understated, aspects is the difference between Azad and the Culture, in politics and morals and pretty much every other aspect of life. There are a few conversation where these things are explored, and – I think deliberately – it’s weird for a reader to try and figure out exactly where they want to position themselves. With the Culture, that tolerates incest and pretty much anything else its citizens can come up with, or the Empire, that goes around subjugating everyone they meet (sounds familiar)? And really, as things are presented here, there are no half-measures. One side or the other.

Interesting. Fun. And, unlike Consider Phlebas (the one I read in the UK), only one page of ickiness that I had to skip over.

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