In Matter, Banks’ seventh novel set in the Culture universe, the king of the ninth level of the backwards Shellworld Sursamen has been betrayed and murdered. Unbeknownst to the traitor, the king’s eldest living son, Ferbin, witnessed the killing. Thought to be dead, Ferbin travels outside the Shellworld to find his sister, Djan, who has become a highly trained and modified weapon of the Culture. The killer, meanwhile, becomes regent for Oramen, the king’s youngest son. But there is much more going on below the surface of Sursamen other than a battle for control of the ninth level: an ancient device has been discovered which may be bring limitless power to the possessor.
Iain M. Banks has come a long way from his first outing in his Culture series, Consider Phlebas. This most recent outing is much more well-written, displaying the confidence and ability he has learned through penning several books. While still displaying some wit, the plot is much more fluid, not full of hokey plot devices.
At nearly 600 pages, however, the novel is probably a little overlong for what transpires. It never drags, but it also doesn’t contain enough action or progress to necessitate such a length. Matter is at its best when the action picks up, putting Djan in a position to display clever technology of the Culture. It is also interesting to read of Ferbin’s reactions as he travels from his nearly medieval homeworld into the mysteries of a technologically superior universe. While he understands the backwardness of Sursamen, the reader can almost see his sense of wonder.
Although Banks has written several other Culture novels, Matter is quite accessible to the uninitiated. The plot of each story is distinct and the characters new. For those looking for a good space opera or intrigued by the universe Iain M. Banks has created, Matter is a good pick.