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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

First published in 1987

The first of Iain Banks' Culture novels follows Horza, a Changer, as he is rescued from Culture captivity by the Idirans, who want to send him to Schar’s World (one of the Planets of the Dead guarded by the Dra’Azon) to find a Mind (a controller of Culture ships) that has taken refuge there.  In the midst of another battle, Horza leaves the Idirans and takes up with the ragtag crew of a scavenger ship, the Clean Air Turbulence, leading to a series of adventures as he finds himself fighting both the Culture and the Idirans.

Pluses:  A well-imagined universe that, for once, doesn't mention or depend upon Earth.  An interstellar conflict between (principally) two races that is being fought for a reason -- or a series of reasons -- other than the need to have a war to advance the plot.  Action scenes that generate real excitement.  Comic relief that works.  Avoidance of a happy ending that the writer inserted just to please readers who like happy endings.

Minuses:  While Horza has some facets of a complex personality, his two love interests and the other characters in general are one-dimensional.  A couple of scenes (one that takes place on what amounts to a desert island) seem out of place, as if they were added to fill space, and do little to advance the plot.  After Horza finally arrives on Schar's World, the pace begins to drag a bit, although it picks up again toward the end.


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