Details: (c) Iain M Banks 1998; Pub Orbit 1996; ISBN 1-85723-146-5
Verdict: The Player of Games is seriously impressive!
Reasons for reading it: Well, since I'm gradually getting to know modern SF, I obviously had to read Iain M Banks at some point. And the main reason it's taken me so long to get to him is not knowing where to start, so now that lethargic_man is around to recommend stuff, I'm all set. And wow, how have I lived through all these years without reading it?!
How it came into my hands: A present from lethargic_man; that has to be one of the best presents ever!
Where can I start? The Player of Games is almost breathtakingly well-crafted, and also fantastically readable. I really resented having to stop reading in order to sleep or work, and it even (shockingly!) dragged me away from LJ on a couple of occasions because I was so excited to find out what would happen next, and enjoying reading it so much. This kind of thing is why I love reading so much; I enjoy reading even second-rate books, but seriously good books present me with the same things I enjoy in any book, but perfected into delights.
The first thing that struck me about tPoG was the solidity of the world. World-building is not normally something I get excited about (which is probably why I'm not really a hard-core SF fan), but reading tPoG I really felt I was getting a glimpse into a society which exists as more than just a vehicle for telling a story. Yes, I know there are several books set in the Culture, but there are plenty of books where long series are set in the same one-dimensional world or period, or else a world that is only cosmetically different from the author's reality. I make a point of never comparing anything to Tolkien, but in this case I'm seriously tempted to break that rule.
The setup is just the kind of thing that appeals to me in SF, the The Left Hand of Darkness type scenario where the story concerns an ambassador from one culture and his impressions of a very different culture. Actually, come to think of it, Gentle's Golden Witchbreed (which coincidentally is probably the last book that impressed me to a comparable extent) is probably a better comparison. As a gamer myself I was very much taken by the whole gaming arc; a novel where various completely imaginary games play such a major rôle could quite easily be dull, but tPoG really captures what's cool about the kind of abstract and semi-abstract games I like, and maintains the excitement through descriptions of just about every class of outcomes of such games. Plus the way that the game stuff acts as a metaphor for the story itself and the cultures portrayed is very clever indeed, tPoG has all kinds of overlapping levels going on in a very fun way.
Gurgeh is a very well drawn viewpoint character, and one I can relate to well even if I don't entirely admire him. It's a pity that the viewpoint is too narrow really to get much impression of anybody but Gurgeh, but the minor characters managed at least to resemble people rather than plot devices.
I also enjoyed the whole nothing is quite what it seems setup; tPoG isn't a mystery novel, where the story is just padding for the puzzle, but there were enough hints that deceit was going on to keep me seriously intrigued. This being so, I really need to be careful of spoilers, but I think I can safely say that the final twist cause me to reassess as strengths a few little things that I'd been regarding as minor flaws in an otherwise fantastic book (mainly the slight feeling that I was being manipulated rather obviously, which makes perfect sense in the light of the ending). And that's quite a twist! TPoG also works really well at face value; the story that I almost believed was going on is a thoroughly exciting story in its own right.
After all that enthusiasm, I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the ending (of the main story, not the twist in the framing story, which as I've said completely wowed me). I think partly this reflects disappointment that the book was over, because I was so engrossed I wanted to keep reading. I've rarely felt like that since I was a kid. But also I don't think tPOG ends in quite the right place. I mean, after the dramatic climax where a galactic empire literally and symbolically goes up in flames, I don't really care that Gurgeh has a long and dull journey home, and I certainly don't care that when he gets there he has gratuitously wonderful sex with a woman who has played absolutely no rôle in the story beyond rejecting him in the first chapter.
Anyway, yes, I'm completely hooked. What fun!