My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Late to the party, but this was excellent. I stayed up far later than I should have done to finish it; the kind of story that reminds me why I love scifi so much. This is what I mean about Banks being all over the map, for me–Consider Phlebas I rated 2 stars, but Player of Games was a comfortable 5 stars.
One of the best things about this novel, from a writerly standpoint, is that it so easily could be dull. Most of the novel is in “tell” rather than show. The MC is described with a huge amount of emotional distance (because the story isn’t written by him), even though the story supposedly hinges on his highs and lows as hey plays. The main character, Gurgeh, is a straight up Mary Sue most of the time. And the central feature of the book, the game of Azad itself, is far too complex for the reader to actually learn all the rules, so the narrative spends all its time talking *around* the game.
And…. it… works. Really, really works. This novel is a case study (as Banks’ novels so often are) of how to bend the rules in all the right ways.
To address the points above, having to talk around the game is what causes most of the book to be narrated in a tell-style, and removes much of the emotional filter. But part of why this works is because the book ISN’T focused on the highs and lows of wins and losses, as you might expect for a game about gambling. For one thing, that tension almost isn’t there–because, as above, Gurgeh is just too good. You expect him to win. The tension comes from the mystery of the game itself. How high, how deep, how far does it go? To what extent does it define, permeate, sustain, and be influenced by, Azad society? Or indeed, all societies? What does the approach of each player say about them, say about their culture and mindset? These are riveting aspects, the sources of tension of fascination throughout.
A lot of skill went into the construction for this novel. As ever, Banks aimed high–and this time, he hit.