The Player of Games is the second in seven “Culture series” novels by Iain M. Banks. However, the novels don’t need to be read in order (or so I’m told). I started here and got along just fine.
In The Player of Games, Gurgeh is a well-known game player in The Culture – what appears to be a federated community of like-minded humanoid and synthezoid beings dedicated to the finer things in life. Work isn’t necessary, space is free to roam, decadent space islands are created at whim, and things are just like one long Fyre Fest, I guess?
Our protagonist, the titular Player of Games, is Gurgeh. He is, and I don’t think this has ever been done in a novel before, a kind of sad guy who is good at something and who women are drawn to. And he is looking for more out of life.
That’s why Gurgeh perks up when someone from The Culture shows up and asks him to commit to a five-year journey to another culture to play a game. But not just any game. An important and confusing game. Gurgeh doesn’t have much going on, so he agrees and boards a sentient spaceship for a two-year trip to the empire of Azad.
The culture of Azad is more or less based on the game of Azad and vice-versa. It’s a complicated mix of card games and then room-sized board games. Kind of like a 4-d chess experience? Gurgeh, a complete outsider to the culture, must try to learn the game, not commit any social faux pas against the (relatively) barbaric culture, and survive the journey home. It’s a little bit mystery, a little bit social commentary, a little bit of world-building.
Overall this was an enjoyable and quick-paced read. As you can probably imagine, The Culture and Azad have more and less in common than one would think at first blush. Banks has some interesting things to say about “the game,” language, economics, power, gender, sex (although some of it is dated) and more. I feel no compulsion to go grab another book from the Culture series, but this one left me with plenty of highlights and long nights page turning.