One of the most prominent authors in the "New Space Opera" movement is Iain M. Banks (who apparently also writes fantasy, but under the name "Iain Banks", without the 'M'), whose highly-regarded novels are all set in a far-future society called "The Culture". It's the ultimate human paradise, apparently, with all needs taken care of by society and with people having achieved a status of near immortality. (Death is probably still a certainty, but it's put off for a very long time when the only ways you can die are to perish in various mishaps or the like.) Banks also represented a fairly large gap in my SF reading history, which I've begun to correct, starting with The Player of Games.
Now, the fact that I haven't read much Banks isn't entirely my fault. Banks is a British writer, which means that for various reasons I'm not really privy to, his work has had a spotty publishing history here in the US. (In fact, the copy I own of Banks's Consider Phlebas, which I bought in Canada, is specifically labeled on the back cover: "Not for sale in the US".) Of late Banks's older Culture novels have started to appear again, courtesy the Orbit label, so I can finally start collecting him, which I intend to do, seeing as how I enjoyed The Player of Games a great deal.
Our hero in The Player of Games is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a man who is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, gamers of the entire Culture. He plays nearly every game that has ever existed, and he plays each one at an extremely high level. He is one of the greatest masters of strategy games to ever live, and as the book opens, he is bored. Desiring new challenges, he learns of a far-off star empire whose entire society revolves around a game that is so massive and so complex that whoever wins the game becomes Emperor. Gurgeh is entranced by the notion of such a game, and he undertakes the journey to the Empire of Azad to play their game. What unfolds there is fascinating, occasionally harrowing, and always surprising.
Gurgeh is an interesting character. Banks doesn't portray him terribly heroically; in fact, Gurgeh is quite flawed. But his flaws don't necessarily stop us from rooting for him, even when a stupid act on his part results in his being blackmailed by a sentient robot drone. The whole book is also based on a very nifty idea, this game whose very complexity determines who will rule the Empire. It is to Banks's credit that he doesn't really try to give a good description of the game or its rules; he throws out little details here and there that suggest aspects of the game, but for the most part he leaves it all up to the reader. That's a wise choice, seeing as how the reader's imagination is really the only place where a game like this could exist.
The book also has some wonderful Sfnal touches, the most striking being the planet whose biological life cycles are based on the frequency with which a fire that constantly circumnavigates the globe sweeps by. I've also been told that a key motif in Banks's Culture novels is that the starships tend to have distinctive names that are often jocular in nature. One ship is called the Limiting Factor, which isn't terribly funny, but another is called the Kiss My Ass, which kind of is. Having not read any of the other Culture books, I found The Player of Games a fine introduction to a milieu that is apparently very large and complex. The book remains pretty well on point throughout, with fine pacing and a cast of characters that isn't too unwieldy to keep straight. It's a different kind of space opera, to be sure; this isn't the kind of space opera that has great fleets of warships pumping energy rays at one another. But it is, most definitely, space opera. And it's a fine one. I'm looking forward to continuing exploring the Culture.