The blurb expounds:
In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one – maybe two – people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever.
Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy.
Concealing her new identity – and her particular set of abilities – might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else’s war is never a simple matter.
This is the eighth book in the Culture series. I read the previous books quite a few years ago so I don’t remember them that well (and my copies predate the Kindle so they’re a pain to re-read), although I do remember that I liked them. Apparently it’s not just my fault that I stopped reading after the seventh book – there was an eight year gap between when the seventh and eighth book were written.
The Culture series is similar to Asimov’s Foundation series in that the books in the series don’t share characters or settings with each other, but what they have in common is that they exist in the same universe and share the same premise. I think this is the secret to writing a long series without it getting tedious.
The Culture series is set in the far future, when humanity has spread through the galaxy, developed lots of new technologies and come in contact with other species of differing sophistication. However all of the books (as far as I can remember) concern themselves more with how lesser developed species interact with the Culture (as we’re now known). This has an interesting effect of allowing the author to write different kinds of novels set in differing pseudo-historical periods with the added spice of super-advanced humans undercover among them to observe and sometimes intervene.
Something I liked about this book was that it’s sci-fi the way nobody seems to write anymore, but I guess it makes sense since the first book in the series was written in 1987 and the basic premise hasn’t changed since then.
Sadly the author passed away in 2013, so we’re never going to get more than ten books in the series. This gives me a bitter-sweet perspective on the remaining books that I haven’t read yet. Fortunately this book did not disappoint – I enjoyed it at least as much as I remember enjoying the previous ones.
The theme of this book seemed to be “there’s always a bigger fish” – no matter how advanced you are, there’s always someone more advanced than you. This was combined with the concept of the more advanced people spying on and toying with the less advanced, which should make any Culture citizen stop and think for a second.
Novels usually have fairly predictable story arcs in that they follow the traditional conflict-climax-resolution model. I guess this is kind of a chicken-and-egg situation because novels being written that way make readers expect it, which means novels have to be written that way. I thought this book was interesting in that it starts off with a traditional story arc and then gets entirely derailed by a different plotline. I really liked it, but since it’s unconventional some people may not.