Having read "Excession", "State of the Art", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background" and "Player of Games", I was excited to pick up another of Iain Banks' Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas".
"Consider Phlebas" is the first of the Culture novels, but it works very well if you've already read a few in the loose series. Instead of learning about the Culture from the inside, we follow Bora Horza Gobochul (great name), an agent who is at war with the Culture, who opposes its ideals with violent action. I'm impressed that Banks started on this note, most authors would have held this type of narrative device in reserve for a follow-up work.
"Use of Weapons" and "Player of Games" explored how the Culture shapes the destiny of less advanced civilisations through its Contact and Special Circumstances branches. Think of Contact as the arm that does the heavy lifting and Special Circumstances as a hand that practises sleight of hand most of the time, but is always ready to form a fist as a last resort. Horza works for the equivalent of Special Circumstances among the enemies of the Culture, the Idirans. Horza is a shape changer, the ultimate spy, and quite literally a born killer, with venomous teeth and poisoned nails. He fights the Culture because their intelligent machines are in his mind the enemies of all living beings.
As with many of the Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas" takes an impressively long view. There are small and long arcs that nudge forward the larger plot. Most of these diversions do their job well enough, carrying us through the varied set pieces Banks has lovingly crafted and placed before us. As always, Banks provides a lot of descriptive detail, which requires careful reading, and is a kind of workout for the imagination, but is generally enjoyable.
As with many of the Culture novels, Horza picks his way through his own past as he draws closer to his final goal. This is perhaps a mild cliché, but as the reader begins each novel in utter ignorance of the life and history of its main character, a wee bit of self-absorption and reflection on the past are necessary evils to help us understand the emotional weight of the character.
I don't want to give anything away, but "Consider Phlebas" is, if anything, a bit darker than "Against a Dark Background" in its ultimate resolution (thankfully it's a bit lighter than "Use of Weapons"). It's a testament to Banks that this book is neither much better or much worse than his later Culture novels. Each novel finds a way to mine different facets of the same material, and each stands alone in its own right. All are highly recommended.
I'm in the midst of reading "Look to Windward", thus far it's a great read, stay tuned for that review in a few days.