The Culture: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks – Book Review [Bane of Kings]


Bane of Kings shares his thoughts on the second novel his new favourite space opera series, Iain M. Banks’ Culture. The Player of Games is published by Orbit in the UK.

“With the first two novels in the Culture series, Iain M. Banks has showed us all why he is a true master of his craft. The Culture is now one of my favourite series and I think The Player of Games may be one of my favourite novels. Unmissable.”~The Founding Fields

I loved The Player of Games that much. In fact, I’m struggling to find anything negative to say about it. Iain M. Banks’ novel is not only standalone (but can be read with his other Culture novels), but also a great entry point to new readers like myself to the Culture series, even though I have read Consider Phlebas beforehand. Iain M. Banks has nailed everything in this novel, and I think it might win the award read this year but not released this year. It’s just… epic. There are no other words to describe it.

But I’m going to have a go anyway, as this would be a short review otherwise.

The Culture – a human/machine symbiotic society – has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy.

Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game … a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life – and very possibly his death.

What makes The Player of Games one of the best novels that I’ve ever read is that Banks seems to do everything right. We’ve got an even pace, some great world building, and we really get a look into Gurgeh as a character, his motives, his thoughts, and we really want to root for him in this book, even if he is not the most likable of characters. He’s not a character that I’m going to forget quickly either, for Banks has created a memorable character to undertake this new challenge. He develops over the course of the novel and it’s very interesting to see where Gurgeh ends up by the time we put the book down. What makes him interesting is that he’s far from a perfect character – after all, he’s human.

The world of the Culture is fantastic. This is proper Space Opera at its finest and Banks has managed to tell us just enough detail about the universe in order for us to understand what’s going on, but also manages to avoid any information dumps. Banks manages to not only build a whole society constructed around gaming, the Azad Empire, where the winner becomes Emperor, but also manages to balance this out with action. It’s not just a novel about Gurgeh discovering the Empire and playing games. It’s got far more depth to it than that.

First published in 1988, The Player of Games is a lot more character focused than Consider Phelbas, but is just as compelling. We follow Gurgeh through his journey for pretty much the entire book, and due to the short excerpts of first person narration from a narrator who isn’t revealled until the end of the book, we can tell that nothing is as it seems. Banks manages to create an element of tension throughout the novel and makes it very unpredictable indeed.

If you’re looking for a jumping on point to the Culture series, then look no further. Either this or Consider Phlebas will be good places to start. And I highly suggest that any fan of science fiction get onboard for the right, becuase with just two books, Iain M. Banks’ The Culture has established itself as my favourite sci-fi series and my second favourite series overall, just behind A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin.

Verdict: 5/5

The Culture: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, The State of Art, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata 


Bane of Kings is one our most senior book reviewers here at The Founding Fields, based in England. He’s a prolific reviewer that has contributed to many things here and around the internet.


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