Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

If you want to start getting Cultured, this is where you should start.  Unlike many of the others in the series, this has one hero, one clearly defined goal and one fantastic ending.

Our hero is Gurgeh - the Culture's top game player, who's grown bored with life on his Orbital.  There are no more games to conquer.  Through a bad misjudgement, he's pressured into joining Special Circumstances (the Culture's Secret Service) to travel to the newly discovered Empire of Azad in the Small Magallenic Cloud.  His mission is to play the most complicated game ever devised, in which the winner becomes Emperor.

I love this clear cut plot, and it's handled so well.  Gurgeh's journey from disaffected genius to reluctant diplomat and beyond is always convincing, especially when he realises the true stakes at play in Azad - which is the name of the game, as well as the Empire.  Even the game itself is explained in a great way - you get a feel for the different boards (which are the size of rooms) and the different strategies and tactics, but of course the game itself is always a mystery.  It's almost like a kung-fu movie, with a varied series of opponents the hero has to defeat.  And of course there are plenty of dirty tricks, distractions and genuinely shocking revelations along the way.

One of the great delights in many of the Culture books are the drones.  They're small floating robots who have full AI and personalities, and are considered as much members of the Culture as the meatbags, if not more so.  They're usually great fun, and two in particular shine in this book - the abrasive and sinister Mawhrin Skel, who's a friend of Gurgeh's on the Orbital, and the naive and prissy Flere-Imsaho, who accompanies Gurgeh to Azad, but seems more interested in birdwatching than the mission in hand.

This has been my favourite of the Culture books since I've been re-reading them - it's just a classic story told well without ten different plots going on at once.  Use of Weapons I remember struggling with years back, but it is highly regarded.  I'm off on holiday tomorrow with it packed on to my kindle, so I may be ready to give it another whirl.

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