IN SHORT: A race of humanoids called the Gzilt are about to Sublime (i.e. ascend to a sort of Heaven) while mildly sinister forces try to keep a secret about their holy book hidden. Enter a group of plucky, sentient starships that can’t leave well enough alone.
WHAT IT IS: The world Iain M. Banks creates is full of wondrous sights, interesting characters, and some absolutely awesome concepts. He takes big concepts and makes them breezily simple to comprehend. The starships with attitudes were my favorite part, and they really are the stars of this novel. Also, the whole book has a sense of cheerful optimism and irreverent humor that’s easy to enjoy.
WHAT IT IS NOT: The plot lacks tension. When the main characters start discussing whether there’s any point to the plot, there’s reason for concern. When they do this repeatedly all the way up to the finale, you know you’re in trouble.
WHAT I THOUGHT: The book has a lot going for it. The concept of the Culture and its cheerful starships is a really neat one. The whole premise of an optimistic future where things generally work out for the best is also a wonderful change of pace from a lot of science fiction (though I do like my dark sci-fi, don’t get me wrong). It’s some of the other elements that fall flat for me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book, especially the quirky humor. It’s the rest of the book that became something of a chore to finish. The big secret is easily guessable and not very interesting. Worse, the main characters are constantly trying to rationalize why they’re bothering to investigate said secret. Seriously, if they don’t care, why should I?
Also, the protagonist starships and their humanoid avatars, while super cool, are a problem. Their abilities outstrip the human and antagonist characters by such a massive degree that any confrontations with them lack suspense. There’s really only one remotely threatening antagonist in the form of Colonel Agansu, and the first time he goes toe-to-toe with a Culture ship’s avatar, he gets his butt kicked!
And then there’s Vyr Cossont, the main human protagonist. To quote the book:
“But I haven’t done anything!” Cossont shouted.
Yes, Cossont. That’s absolutely right. I’m on page 407 and you haven’t done a single thing. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re in the book.
I guess what I’m saying is the building blocks of the book are solid. It has an interesting setting, cool concepts, and some really neat characters in the starships. But the execution falls a bit flat for me. Still, it’s such a unique setting, that it’s hard not to give it a mild nod just for that.
Besides, a part of me feels I’m being a little too picky and should have relaxed and enjoyed this light-hearted romp.