Matter is Banks' return to the world of the Culture after a lay-off of 8 years ( Look to Windward 2000) and focuses on the often mentioned mentoring aspect of the Culture, and more specifically
the shadowy Special Circumstances division within the Culture. The story focuses on the Shellworld Sursamen (Shellworlds are ancient artificial planet consisting of fourteen nested concentric spheres internally lit by tiny thermonuclear "stars", whose layers are inhabited by various different species. )
On the 8th level of Sursamen live the Sarl, a Humanoid race lead by the royal household of Hausk.
The story begins with Ferbin Hausk , prince of Sarl and heir to the throne witnessing the murder of his father the king at the hands of his friend and right hand Tyl Loesp. Ferbin is forced to flee his home with his man servant Choubris Holse and makes his way to the tower superstructures that support the individual levels within the shellworld and provide transport to the surface. His aim is to find his sister whom left Sursamen 15 years previous to join the Culture .
Presuming Ferbin dead, Tyl Loesp is installed as regent until Oramen , youngest of King Hausks children and now heir to the 8th is of age . Oramen is a studious youth , who having expected his role as 3rd son ( King Hausks oldest son was killed during the unification of the 8th) graciously accepts Tyl Loesp as his regent and mentor, having no idea of the truth behind his warlike fathers death nor Loesps true motives.
This basically Sets up the premise of the book
One part revenge and betrayal novel
One part technological tour de force
One part intergalactic travel brochure
All the great traits of a cultural novel are there, we have the amusing ship names, the quirky ship AI's , the one man army Culture suits of doom , the condescending drone and all the other fluff that comes with a Culture novel , but the books suffers massive pacing issues , and spends a large portion of the book on a sort of intergalactic travel brochure , and while it was nice to be introduced to new species within the greater universe it has little to no bearing on the main storyline and in large parts was boring . The parts of the book set on Sursamen and involving Oramen are overall enjoyable, and play out like a tradition fantasy novel ( big bad regent out to steal the boy who would be kings throne, with overtones of something sinister pulling the strings in the background)
The scenes set on the 9th level in and around the Nameless City are where the book really starts to pick up pace and really hit its stride, this final third of Matter when Holse , Ferbin and his Special Circumstances agent sister Anaplian return to the shellworld kitted out in Nano suits with arsenals equivalent to that of a medium sized nation , and accompanied by ship who may or may not be a special forces vessel with some rather neat ricks of its own. The book reaches a typically Banksian ending that will appeal to all Culture fans and to fans of space opera at large.
Overall it was fun to read a book set again in the world of the culture, the book did having pacing issues however and at some points nearly ground to a halt , once into the final third the book flew along and was everything fans love about banks and his world.
3/5* would have been an 4 if the tedious section in the middle was better paced