Well, in a word? Disappointing. My main complaint about this book is how damn long Banks took to actually get around to anything resembling the actual action the plot required.

Here’s the go, the plot is: “Extremely evil” ™ invasion fleet heading for isolated system on edge of galaxy. Hero must prove existence of secret of alien wormhole hidden by aliens living in local gas giant to save the day. Simple, right? (spoiler to follow)

Well, no. Instead of cutting to the chase, Banks spends the first 150 pages in self-indulgement twaddle masquerading as “backstory”. I was instantly suspicious, but persevered and finished the book. And, as suspected, a waste of time.

Thing is, I’m a genuine fan of Banks. But this bloated story seriously tested my patience. In a nutshell, he constructs entire sub-plots that end up having little to no relevance to the substance of the action (“hero on quest”), but seems to want to give the appearance of being red herring. They’re not. They’re wastes of your time that fill pages where something like decent suspenseful writing should be.

In all this criticism are a few highlights though. The aliens our hero (Tassin Taak) is seeking the answers from to save his system are freaking hilarious. Bumbling, drunken, stoned colossi full of bluster and self-importance. The oldest species in the universe, who can’t design decent ships, spend half their time accumulating kudos to spend on parties. I’d read another book in the same setting just to follow the further adventures of Taak and his “Dweller” guide Y’sul.

If Banks had trimmed all the faff before Taak makes it to the Dweller gas-giant, all the crap involving the school friends and their machinations while he’s seeking the holy grail, then the book would have been a fun read. The space battles, the unexpected Dweller super-weapons, the comic episodes involving other aliens left abandoned on distant planets? Great.

Childhood friend who is killed in alien craft that has no semblence of relevance to the conundrum of the evil invasion? Waste of space.

And even then, once our hero does find the grail, it’s not used to defeat the evil threat! It was just something to do while the story trundled along! Frustrating.

I kept thinking that Banks was perhaps attempting to make some kind of social commentary the way he did with Dead Air (where he has the guy pummel a holocaust denier), but, no. Just a lot of unnecessary characters where something interesting should be.

Ah well. Onto a biography of Philip K. Dick. Now that should be an interesting read.