Mysterious, subtle and thoughtful. Less of a mindless space adventure story with juvenile one dimensional space morons(i.e. Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction behemoth) than a crime fiction novel of sorts that moves with wit and finess, inexorably towards its ultimate conclusion.
Quilan is a Chel. A member of a nation moving out of the shadow of a sudden and violent civil war. It's relationship with the vast Culture civilisation is ambiguous. Quilan is sent as an emissary to a Culture orbital to meet with a famous Chel exile. As we move through the book the past of the central character is slowly peeled away as both he and the reader come to understand the implications fo his terrible mission.Muhahahaha!
This is one of those rare novels that reminds one of how truly satisfying it is to read, wrapped in blankets or draped across a sofa with a coffee in easy reach. The repartee between the Culture figures is almost Vancian (as in Jack Vance)in its quick indulgent interplay. There is little of Bank's (at times maligned) penchant for descriptive violence. Rather mystery blends deliciously with succulent characterization in this truly worthy addition to Bank's Culture series. I growled at times at pointless scences reading through 'Consider Phlebas'(esp the eater scene on a Caribbean-esque beach - Nice book title though!)Such superfluity has been truly expunged in this tight novel. Here I whoopped and chuckled with joy and delight as I read, locking myself in the bathroom so that I might finish it undisturbed by my family. It is perhaps Bank's finest work; Subtle in ways many people seem not to have picked up on. Ho ho.
If you enjoy this then do all you can to read any of Jack Vance's works. The Demon Princes series is as good a place as any to start.