the Little Red Reviewer

Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

Posted on: May 8, 2012

Player of Games (a Culture novel) by Iain M. Banks

published in 2008

where I got it: library










A story about a guy playing a game? Something like an overcomplicated chess tournament? sounds boring, doesn’t it? Well, this is Iain Banks, he doesn’t do boring. And Azad is far more than overcomplicated chess.  Azad is quite literally the game of a lifetime.

Subtle and darkly funny are descriptors that come to mind when I think of Player of Games. It’s central conceit sounds ridiculous at first: Win a board game, become Emperor.  But as I’m coming to learn, with Iain Banks nothing is simple, and nothing is ever as it seems.

thanks to a little case of blackmail, Jernau Gurgeh finds it might be best to leave the Orbital for a while. It’s with nearly perfect timing that he receives an invitation to learn a new game far from home. And not just any game, but the game that an entire empire was named for, a game whose winners shape the future of the worlds on which it is played. A famed game player, Gergeh has a record of winning nearly every game he sits down to play, and an uncanny ability to quickly learn new systems and rules. If any Culture citizen is capable of even understanding the complex game of Azad, it’s him.

The Azad Empire is as different as could be from The Culture.  Rules are strict, status makes the person, ownership is a serious big deal, and decadence is celebrated. The Azadians spend lifetimes learning the game of Azad. Played over the course of days and on multiple ballroom sized boards, the winners of the game define government policy, with the ultimate winner becoming Emperor. The Game is the Empire, and the Empire is the Game.

Gurgeh isn’t really interested in winning Azad, but as unofficial Culture Ambassador to the Azadian Empire, he certainly doesn’t want to be seen as an idiot either. Besides, gaming the game has become a bit of an addiction to him. With helpful suggestions from his Ship and his translator drone, Gurgeh picks up on the subtleties of the game quicker than may be healthy. A game that at first he has trouble taking seriously soon becomes an obsession. Every empire has a dark side, and Azad is no different.  And the only way to change the politics of the Empire is the win the game.

Jernau Gergeh might be complacent and nihilistic,  but I adored him as a character. Not the most likeable person in the world, I was still highly entertained by his conversations with his drones and his culture shock upon entering the Azad Empire. Banks wows the reader right away with the sprawling Culture, but he excels just as well with developing the intimate details that flesh out the characters.  Player of Games is quite detailed, but certainly not overly so. Except for a slowdown at the end (my only petty complain), it’s a very quick read.

Player of Games had everything I want out of a good book: Interesting characters, intelligent and funny dialog, and a science fictional plot that goes from thoughtfully playful to deadly serious and back again in the blink of an eye.  Do your good deed for the day: introduce someone to Iain M. Banks.

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21 Responses to "Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks"

I’ve been waiting for your review of this one! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. As a board game geek as well as a Banks fan, player of games really ticks my boxes. Such a shame Azad only exists in Banks’ mind!
Any thoughts as to where you will go next in your Banks reading?

I was thinking Surface Detail or maybe Use of Weapons?

“ticks my boxes”, i nearly snorted coffee all over my keyboard! I’m never going to be able to go to a gamers weekend again without thinking “Azad wouldn’t even fit in this room”.

Use of Weapons is next in order of publication. It’s also one of the best SF novels ever. The course is clear, methinks!

I love this book! I first read it for a sci fi course at varsity, and it was partly responsible for getting me hooked on the genre. I always recommend it to people wanting to try a Banks novel, or to sci fi newbies.

how come they didn’t offer sci fi courses when I was at school? oh yeah, cuz I was at an engineering school, where everything was really, really boring. :( and you’d think, engineers would really like Scifi!

One of my favorites, but I have to say most the Culture books are on my favorite sci fi list. I want more….

People have been telling me to read these books for years, why oh why didn’t I listen?? Which one do you recommend I read next?

Like Stefan and David I’d say Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons. I started with Look to Windward and had to go back and read the rest in order.

I’m always a big fan of reading series in order of publication. Regardless of whatever games an author plays with internal chronology, as long as you read the books in the order they were written you have the same experience as the readers who picked up the series from the start. (The only exception I’ve found to this rule, so far, is the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, where I usually recommend reading the books by internal chronology.)

I’d go with Consider Phlebas or Use Of Weapons.

Consider Phlebas was the first of the Culture novels to be written and the earliest in the chronology to date, with the protagonist fighting on behalf of the Idirans against the Culture. It serves as a good introduction to the universe and the conflict is referenced in several of the later Culture novels.

Use of Weapons followed The Player Of Games in publication, and as Stefan mentioned, it is one of the best SF novels ever.

Whichever you go for it is a win-win scenario!

i must have been reading your and Stefan’s minds earlier today when i just happened to be in my favorite bookstore, and they just happened to have a copy of Use of Weapons, and I bought it!

Iain M. Banks did have an essay about the Culture on the newsgroups a while back. It’s been archived by a few of his fan-sites and is well worth checking out if you’re new to the series:

I love epic fictional games, and I hadn’t heard of this one. Sounds fun–straight onto the TBR pile!

I used to love Iain Banks when I was younger, but he’s fallen off my radar a bit in recent years. It was his real(ish) world books I mostly read (the Wasp Factory made a big impression on me when I was about 15. I think I even wrote an essay about it for GCSE English!) But I’ve struggled a bit with the sci fi. I started Consider Phlebas twice, and just couldn’t get into it. But then I read Against a Dark Background, and loved it. So I gave him another go a few years ago, and got over half way through the Algebraist, but then just lost interest.
You’ve reminded me I should try again. He is an excellent writer, and full of interesting ideas.

I have this author on my list. I have never read him before, but one day!

Interesting to hear your thoughts! I’ve read four Culture novels (Consider Phlebas, Player, Use of Weapons, and Look to Windward); I disliked the first and last, and Player was the one I found most fun on a first read.

Enjoy Use of Weapons! Do you plan to review it when you’re done? If Player was the best the first time through, UoW is the one that stuck in my mind.

I do plan to review Use of Weapons, i just need to be able to get to it! I’ve been acquiring way too many books lately, which means gems like the Banks are no longer at the top of the TBR list. but he close to the top of the list, i promise! so far both of the Banks I’ve read have been sticking in my mind, and to me, that’s a sure sign of a successful book.

I love Iain M. Banks! I started reading them in a completely random pattern. I started with Matter, then Player of Games, Whit (not sci-fi, but hilarious and definitely worth a read), Use of Weapons, Consider Phlebus, and now The Algebraist (in progress). I think my favourite has been Use of Weapons because of its amazing and–for me, at least–completely unexpected ending. The Algebraist has been slow going for me, as my first non-Culture novel, but I am enjoying it. I look forward to your next Banks review, whichever it is you choose!

I’d recommend ‘Use of Weapons’ as the next to read, and also to read roughly in order: ‘Look to Windward’, for example, needs to be read after ‘Consider Phlebas’ (though I don’t think ‘Consider Phlebas’ is one of Banks’ better novels). ‘Use of Weapons’ is fantastic. Also try ‘Against A Drak Background’, which isn’t a Culture novel, but which is richly detailed and has very interesting characters. Or there’s ‘The State of the Art’, a collection of short stories, two of which are Culture-set. I might do a Banks re-read soon…

(sorry for the late comment, but I just read your end of year post and had to comment on one of my favourite sci-fi novels)

Oh dear. ‘Against A DARK Background’.

no worries. :) Look to Windward was actually my first Banks, I was told it’s the best written one of the earlier novels, even tho yes, Consider Phlebas comes first. So I read Look to Windward, and wow, it was love at page one! Thanks to the kindness of a friend (who knows who she is!) I am now in possession of a TON of Culture novels, along with The State of The Art. Use of Weapons will most likely be the next one I pick up!

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