The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Starting my second read today, for a group read with a great group of people.... and I've finished my second read.
I'm much more impressed with the novel on the reread than I was the first time, so I've bumped my stars up from 4 to 5, and I don't think I'm being generous at all. It deserved it.
My main problem with either reading was that I just didn't quite care with the whole overt premise of a game player. I'm a game player, myself, but reading about games that are completely foreign and strange with rules only obliquely intersecting any that I've ever known strikes me as pointless and strange. It strikes as much interest in me as, say, reading a novel about Hockey or American Football. My boredom is so palpable that even my dog can smell it on me.
And then, there's the other side of this book, the one that reads like a jousting tournament, full of heavily laden knights with shifting alliances and champions for opposing kingdoms. That part is quite exciting. It only gets better because it's set in the Culture, the ultimate let's-all-get-along mega-spanning galactic anti-empire filled with all types of aliens and machine minds living with (pretty much) no coercion, unless, of course, a bit of finesse is "Really" required.
And that's where we come into the story, and we get to play and be a piece on the board at the same time, feeling all the ups and downs, the close-calls, the frustration, the elation and the triumph. Often all in a single night, oft repeated, but never dull, and this is true for me even though, as I said, the idea revolves around a freaking game with which I have no real stake.
Well, that's true, I guess, until later, but by then the stakes take on a completely different flavor, and the fall of galactic civilizations are at stake. (Well, one is at stake, anyway. If you're reading this for the first time, I'll let you discover which one I'm talking about.)
I paid closer attention to the descriptions of settings and people, this time, and was pleasantly surprised to see how they matched pace with the games this time, especially the one with the Big Guy on the Flaming Planet. And of course, no author can beat the wonderful names of the Culture Ships.
I am glad I read this a second time. I actually forced myself to really try and imagine the game, or at least make up some heavy approximation of it, and in the end it became just another worldbuilding exercise. A lot of us readers like to fill in the blanks and use our imaginations to build a living and breathing world out of the hints and implications of authors, and I think I failed to do that last time. I focused on the world and enjoyed that plenty, but then I forgot to focus on the game. If you don't read this novel with the explicit intent to get into the game, itself, rather than just the interesting characters, then you're missing out on more than half the novel.
That might turn some people off, just as it threatened to turn me off, but I feel better for sticking with it. The novel became really quite awesome by the end, and not just a clever plot.
If you're really interested in what I wrote a few years ago about the novel then, here's what I threw together:
"The novel is surprisingly deep for a character to start out so shallow. A very different novel from the first Culture novel and a much more direct plot-line with just as much of a great touch when it comes to the ebb and flow of the story. Very amusing satire that is only given a light touch, thank goodness, and used primarily to raise the tension. All in all, great writing, even if I won't put the novel among my top 100, but definitely a good read."
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