Matter - Iain M Banks
Technically, due to his recent catastrophic drop in quality, I no longer buy Banks books in hardback, but it was my birthday, and Matter was on my Amazon wishlist, so I ended up with this one anyway. It's his first Culture novel since the distinctly average Look to Windward, and his first SF novel since the execrable Algebraist, so my expectations were very, very low. Whether this was a factor or not I am not sure, but I actually found Matter a damn good read. It has the Big-Concept inventiveness that he used to be so great at; some interesting characters, including a family whose background surprisingly lacks any Dark Secrets of incest, murder or betrayal; and a refreshing lack of preaching.
The main setting, the shellworld Sursamen, is one of the best aspects of the book. Shellworlds are artificial planets created by some long-dead race, consisting of several concentric spheres, each of which now contains its own distinct civilisation. This particular one is outside Culture-controlled space, and managed by a loose hierarchy of other species, not all of which are as neutral as they claim to be. Down below the surface, the humans of the Eighth Level have just discovered gunpowder and steam engines, and are making war on the Ninth with the covert help of their Oct overseers. Ferbin, dissolute princeling and heir to the throne, accidentally witnesses his father's murder and is forced to flee offworld, leaving his younger brother in the clutches of his enemies. The only one that can help them now is their absent sister Anaplian, who left fifteen years ago to join the Culture, and is now an agent-in-training with Special Circumstances. Normally, events on Sursamen would fall outside the Culture's mandate, but a number of other suspicious happenings in the region means that Anaplian may be heading to just the right place at the right time...
The most interesting (and sympathetic) character is probably Oramen, more intelligent than his loose-living older brother, but still young and naïve, and oblivious to the plots of the regent, tyl Loesp. As a convincing baddy, tyl Loesp fails miserably, being little more than a moustachio-twirling pantomime villain, though he still manages to be slightly better than whatisface from The Algebraist; still, it's soon clear that he's far from being Top Banana in the bad guy stakes, and the real players are considerably more deadly. Anaplian is also something of a cardboard cutout Hard Culture Chick, and Ferbin isn't much deeper, though as the standard Clueless Toff, he at least provides plenty of entertainment. The only other character worthy of note is Ferbin's assistant, Holse - as the token Working Class guy, he occasionally strays a bit too close to being an authorial mouthpiece, but luckily this rarely goes much beyond telling us again how much Banks really, really loves playing Civ.
It's hard to tell how much I would have liked this if it hadn't been preceded by so much crap, as it's definitely not up there with Banks's best work (everyone has different favourites, but my top 3 are The Player of Games, Against A Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn, for comparison), but I'd confidently say it's better than anything else he's done in the last ten years, with or without the M. A very pleasant surprise, and a hopeful sign that maybe Banks can bounce back after all.