This is the second Culture book I've read. The first was Excession
, which was decidedly not the book to start with. I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. Of course, the second one I ended up picking up wasn't the first book in the series either, but at least it was the second. And much more accessible. Whew!
I'm still not loving them, though. I enjoyed what I read, and won't avoid future Culture novels, but I'm not at the point where I'd seek them out, either. I found this book to be clinically distant from its material for a good portion of the text. It did pick up and become quite emotional by the end, and I think maybe that's the point. But it was a long way to go for a book that was only engaging me intellectually until the last 50 pages. I got angry when the main character did, and so it feels like that's the point.
Gurgeh is the best game player in Culture. Doesn't matter what game - there are local specialists who might be able to beat him in individual games, but no one can stand up against him across the broad spectrum of available contests. So when he hears that Contact has found an Empire where the entire fate of the imperial structure is decided by incredibly complex games, he is intrigued. And heads to Asad, where he takes place in the Grand Tournament, becoming enmeshed in imperial politics and strategy (and Contact strategy) in ways he never anticipated.
Banks does a fairly good job of keeping attention on the game, but since it isn't (and probably can't be, even if it were a real thing) explained in the book, it is difficult to know what he means at times. A good portion of the book are descriptions (not in great detail, more in impressions) of the gameplay.
But when the book opens up, and Gurgeh becomes aware of the implications of game and the society that that game has created, everything kicks into high relief, and the end moves, in real life and in the game, are engrossing.