As "The Bridge" set the tone for all the mainstream fiction Banks was to write, so this set the bar for all his subsequent science fiction. And it set that bar quite high.
Like all his novels, genre and otherwise, it revolves around a protagonist with a back story that slowly unfolds - but this is really quite a stark and horrific back story. It is about war and the evil that men do in the name of war, ideology, religion and power, and in a curious way how some men seek to atone for the sins of war through further violence.
At that level this could be a mainstream novel, so that while the science fiction backdrop gives Banks more room to manoeuvre, it is secondary to its exploration of the character and origins of the central protagonist, Zakalwe. In him we look into the heart of how and why wars are fought, and our own darkest motivations.
The novel also introduces us to two of Banks's more memorable Culture characters - the Special Circumstances arch manipulator, Diziet Sma and her coleague/handler/bodyguard, the anarchic and irreverent drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw. The latter's much talked about "hat joke" is genuinely funny yet cruel.
But as all three protagonists use others as weapons in the wars they fight in the name of the Culture's high mined principles, they are themselves just weapons being used and discarded as needed by the Culture' quasi military intelligence Special Circumstances section.
The echoes with current wars being fought by the West are strong, but this novel was written over a decade before The War on Terror began. This is science fiction at its most adult - exploring ideas through character development rather than crash bang action, which puts it ahead of the field not just in contemporary SF, but against much of Banks's subsequent writing.
Oh, and it is well worth reading more than once.
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