This is my first time reading Iain Banks, and my preconceptions were totally off-base. I'm not historically a huge fan of hard sci-fi, as it is often more focused on ideas and setting than character. (Hey, I said often, not always.) When I heard that Banks was a great world builder, and that his books were full of advanced tech and talking spaceships, I was less than excited. Simply put: I had not expected to enjoy this book. That's why it's a bit of a shock that I not only liked this book, I liked it a LOT.
As it turns out Banks IS a great world builder, but he is also adept at plotting and character. This book, which for 2/3 focuses on the playing of a complex board game, could have easily been very very dull. Instead I found myself completely absorbed. Perhaps part of this might be because I have an interest in game theory, but I think it is mostly due to Banks' writing craft. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what would happen next. And I wanted to know how it would end.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can give this book is that it gave me a book hangover - all the books on my To Read pile lost some of their shine, and I just wanted to read more about Gurgeh's adventures with Azad.