Somewhere between 4-4.5 stars.
My first Culture book (Consider Phlebas got stuck somewhere in the hyperspace). The world building is WOW without too much info-dump. Plenty of humour and some beautiful paragraphs. Really want to know more about the Minds and Ships. Not caring for the protagonist yet, but we'll see.
The Culture universe is probably the best realized fictionalverse I've ever met in SF. Two civilisations encountered here, the Culture and the Azad feel so real with different characteristics, morals, life-styles and whatever you'd expected from two diverse real-life civilisations.
The plot itself is nothing new. A barbaric empire was discovered and the more civilized Culture, who acted as a guardian of the universe which to intervene. The mean of intervention here is sending a game player called Jernau Gergeh to play Azad, the game that decided everything on the said empire.
However, Banks spinned the story marvellously. The tension is almost tangible and there're more than one scene where I have to stop reading and take stock of what's happening. The change in Gergeh as he delved deeper into the game is obvious. The final game between him and certain person is electrified. And the sneaky ending is...well, I'm still not sure I admired it or feel cheated by it.
Now, when will my copy of Use of Weapons arrived