Nobody does sci-fi opera better than Iain M. Banks, and nobody denies that having the wit and imagination to conceptualise it is a difficult trick to pull off successfully. But on the strength of this under-powered outing, Banks may be losing his sci-fi crown.
Many people will buy into this book because the marketing people have billed it as the "new Culture novel', but the Culture's role is only coincidental through one of the characters.
The actual story is one of Bank's weakest, with most of the action set in a steam-powered quasi-medieval world of swords and armour, a long way from the techno-gadgetry of the Culture. Things get off to a quick start with the murder of a genocidal king by his henchman of 30 years. The next 400 pages grind past in tedium as the characters are slowly brought together, presumably to bear on the usurper tyl Loesp.
Mid-way through I started wondering why the reader or an ultra advanced civilisation like the Culture should care about the murder of a genocidal and parochial king, his 3 surviving bastard children, and their attempts to claim back the throne. The answer is I shouldn't have cared - the author seems to lose interest and hurries to kill off the book with a sacrificial ending that comes out of a nowhere and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
If you're a fan of the Culture series, give Matter a miss and wait for the next 'proper' Culture novel.
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