The Player of Games
By Iain M Banks Link to The Player of GamesAmazon UK book link Powell's used book link
Rating: Brilliant!
4 Stars

First Published: 1988
UK Hardback Jacket Illustration by:  Richard Hopkinson
Pages: 309

Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Science Fiction, Thriller



The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks is science fiction at its best with great writing in addition to an exciting plot.  It has terrific characters, a fully developed alien civilization, mysteries, and suspense.  This novel is set in a diverse far future universe dominated by the “Culture” that Banks explores in a number of his science fiction novels, of which this is my favorite.  Banks uses his middle initial to identify his science fiction works as opposed to his mainstream or literary fiction books where he doesn’t use his middle initial.  In either case, you can be assured that Banks brings considerable talent to the table.

The Player of Games begins when a top professional strategy game player named Gurgeh becomes bored due to a lack of competition.  On an impulse, he inquires with the Culture’s Contact division (responsible for contacting new civilizations) about whether they have any jobs that might offer a new challenge.  When he finds out they have a job for him that will require extended travel, he changes his mind only to find himself blackmailed into taking the job anyway.  Soon he’s headed for a distant star system to a barbaric, medieval type empire that has somehow spread to a number of planets.  His job is a perfect fit, to represent the Culture in the most complex strategy game yet discovered, Azad which is the foundation of the Azad Empire.  In this culture, your skill at this game is believed to represent your abilities in the real world.  In fact, Azad tournaments are used to determine your job and rank in the empire.  The ultimate champion of the empire receives the ultimate reward, being crowned emperor.

Gurgeh finds his mission is to play in a lower level tournament to gain some respect for the Culture in the eyes of the Azad Empire.  However, he quickly finds that the stakes are much higher than he has ever played for before as the price of defeat is not only loss of respect but can also result in physical torture or even death.  Even worse, as an alien outsider, the price of winning may be just as bad due to the fear and racism of the empire. 

This is a suspenseful page turner that’s hard to put down.  The strategy and action in the game sequences are as exciting as the action outside the games.  The longer Gurgeh stays in the tournament, the more he discovers about this alien civilization which is quite proud of its cruelty and violence.  The extremes of the Azad civilization make you think about issues of race, gender, and morals.  If you want to read a fun and exciting book that also makes you think, The Player of Games should be at the top of your list.