I finished reading The Player of Games late last night. It ended in a surprisingly satisfactory manner. I’d picked up the book to read it again, only to discover it wasn’t the story that I thought I’d read before. Which means that my decision to give away this title on World Book Night later this month was quite random and based on a completely different gaming plot!
In his 1988 novel, Iain M. Banks tells the story of a journey taken by one of the Culture’s greatest game players. Skilled at figuring out and deploying fiendishly successful strategies for complex board games, Jernau Morat Gurgeh is blackmailed into accepting a two year journey to another world to participate as a guest in the Azad tournament.
Can Gurgeh hope to master the game that the Empire of Azad use to select their emperor as well as defining the social hierarchy and players’ career advancement? Can he build up strength and credibility I the minor games before moving onto the three main boards? As he progresses through the tournament, can he defend himself on and off the board from his politically elite competitors?
Compared to a lot of science fiction, it’s a complicated read. My satisfaction at its ending came from a resolution of some of the frustrations that had built up during the book. The pacing and page-turnability varies throughout the three hundred pages. For a long time, it felt like a book about a successful game player. But the layers of games within games, political machinations, emotional manoeuvring and cheating to change the rules and avoid losing became clear, much like Gurgeh’s enlightenment about the game he was playing and the way in which he too was being played.
It’s science fiction, so expect space travel, genofixed glands manufacturing drugs inside characters’ own bodies, depression at uncovering futility, drones (in disguise), an unchallenged sense that the Culture is superior the Empire of Azad, a lot more than two genders, and a little cross-species sexual intrigue and castration thrown in for good measure.
Giving away twenty four copies of this on April 23 is going to be quite a challenge!