This is my third Iain Banks book and despite his status as a science fiction writer vaguely ringing a bell when I skimmed through the blurb I will admit I was slightly disappointed to realise it was set in a different world with characters from an “alien” species with super intelligent drones in tow; which is admittedly a very close minded reaction. One of the main advantages in only reading from a set list of books and knowing that I will have to read each book sooner or later (even as “later” stretches ever further into the horrifically distant future…) is it is a major deterrent in putting a book down. If a book doesn’t immediately appeal sometimes ploughing on can yield pleasant surprises (as happened with this one), or else it means that at least one chapter/page/sentence is read and that’s one fewer for me to read at another time.
I’ve been trying to choose books around the 200/250 page mark recently because they’re not too heavy to carry on my commute to work and it means I can get through one or two books per week; after the first 40 pages of the Player of Games I did find myself taking much more of an interest in the plot, by 150 I was really enjoying it and raced to get to the end. The primary issue I had with the opening chapters was a lack of connection/concern/care for Gurgeh, whose haughtiness and complacency didn’t exactly draw me to him. The suggestion that he might have subconsciously cheated during the game he played with the old man on the train (or cheated outright and we weren’t fully informed) did made him slightly more interesting, although as with his cheating in the much more public game he played against the young challenger I did get the impression that he wasn’t going to be found out anyway (and despite his considering suicide if anyone were to learn about it) I also got the feeling he didn’t especially care. I also didn’t appreciate the (very rare) interjections from the narrator but there were only a couple of these (I didn’t think it was going to be too much of a surprise exactly who the narrator was, just as it was fairly obvious that Flere-Imsaho wasn’t the fairly simple, boring drone it claimed to be).
Thinking back I can’t pinpoint the exact turning point when I started really enjoying the story so perhaps it was more a case of it gradually growing on me; regardless it was much more enticing watching Gurgeh actually applying himself during the journey to learn the rules of Azad, as well as the language of the new empire (planet/(s)?) he was traveling to; then navigating his way through the first few games of the competition and the character actually demonstrating his intelligence and ability at game learning and game playing. This is one of the few books where I’ve found myself trying to decipher whether I should be reading deeper into the Azad “people” – whether they’re meant to symbolise humans and what message you’re supposed to take away from this – which as a rule I generally try not to (and never make a conscious effort to do).