(1998) Iain M. Banks, Orbit, £16.99, hrdbk, 352pp, ISBN 1-85723-626-2
This is a non-Culture SF novel, that nonetheless obviously has a Culture Special Circumstances agent in it, whether she's there at the behest of the Culture or not.
The story is told from two perspectives in neighbouring late-middle-ages countries; one that of a court concubine to the new military ruler of the continent, who rose to power in the aftermath of a few asteroid strikes; the other from a court spy in a neighbouring kingdom, who's subject for intelligence gathering is the king's doctor. Reading between the lines it's quite clear that the society is being manipulated to move in socially positive directions, but you care little for that as you become more and more engaged in the characters' personalities.
This is definitely a character-led book, and I have a fondness for all of them, even the 'bad guys'. Everything is up to Iain's normal standard, which is to say superb; and if you're not reading him by now... Why not?
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