Hardcover: 544 pages
Publisher: Orbit (31 Jan 2008)
Banks is the doyen of Big Dumb Object SF, and in this latest novel, he makes no exception to his rule.
The BDO here is the Sursamen, on of a number of Shellworlds in the known galaxy. (A Shellworld is a world like an onion, multiple layers held apart by great shaft towers.) Shellworlds were built in the far past by a long-gone race, though many were destroyed for unknown reasons by another long gone species.
Here, on levels 8 and 9 of this world, are two nations. With the aid of the Oct (one of two species 'mentoring' this world), the Sarl (technology level about WWI, with flying animals instead of aircraft) have invaded the other level, and are fighting a war of consolidation, when their King Hausk is killed. Murdered, actually. And his son, Prince Ferbin, an unseen witness, goes on the run, heading out to the stars in search of his sister who some years before was taken away to the Culture, where she's become an agent of Special Circumstances.
But there is, of course, much more going on than just some political shenanigans in an underdeveloped society beyond the borders of the Culture. The real narrative forces in this book aren't immediately obvious. The initially apparent one (Ferbin escapes, finds Anaplian, they come back and defeat the Regent Tyl Loesp, saving youngest brother Oramen) isn't the real story. Instead, great forces start rising from the depths somewhere around the middle of the book, with the real problem only actually appearing at the end. And so that end is not the destination you expected.
But that's one of the joys of Banks' writing.
In addition, there's the usual array of fascinating species, so straightforward, some not. As usual, we're seeing the Culture mostly from outside, because the Culture itself is almost devoid of stories (it's a eutopia - and eutopias aren't meant to be exciting, because exciting is usually distressing to someone). And we see what it's like in a society (that of the Sarl) who have the constant knowledge of god-like levels of civilisation above and beyond them, without really being part of it.
Another trip to the Culture.