Fans of Iain M. Banks (or anyone with access to Google, I suppose), will be quick to note that The Player of Games is actually the second novel in the Culture Series, and so it may seem strange that I’m not first reviewing the series’ initial novel, Consider Phlebas. The answer to this conundrum is rather simple: I’d read that it’s best to start the series with book two! (Incidentally, I’ve heard, and agree, with the same recommendation for those tackling the Malazan Book of the Fallen series). Thus, The Player of Games is both my first and only experience with Banks’ work.
The book follows Jernau Gurgeh, a famous “game player” among the extremely advanced society known as The Culture (imagine someone who can compete competitively in chess, monopoly, and Pictionary- basically whatever game he puts his mind to). Beset by a vague sense of ennui, and manipulated by outside forces, Gurgeh is compelled to leave his comfortable surroundings and venture to the more primitive world of the empire of Azad, where he eventually competes in the highly complex game which dominates their culture.
While reading The Player of Games, my thoughts occasionally drifted back to Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, which I have fond memories of, despite not having read for a decade or two. The appeal of both works centers on our fascination with games and competition, and by the end of The Player of Games, I was very much invested in Gurgeh’s quest to defeat the best that the Azad had to offer. While Anthony’s work tends towards the more juvenile (and by that I mean no disrespect- as a juvenile, I enjoyed his books very much!), Banks’ work is definitely for adults. I wouldn’t consider this especially “hard” sci-fi, insofar as Banks doesn’t spend considerable time focused on technology or science, but this isn’t really a beach read either.
Overall, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and look forward to reading more of Banks’ work. If you enjoy sci-fi generally, I have a hard time believing that you wouldn’t enjoy this. Read with confidence!
Rating: 3- Highly Recommended.