-This is one that I didn't have a strong impression on with a first reading, good or bad. There were some standout incidents in the story, but the larger narrative didn't come together completely. On reread it did and I found it great, standout science fiction in the same tier as The Player of Games and Use of Weapons.
-Reading this right after Excession made a strong contrast, the account being vastly more restrained, less going on, and the most advanced tech a knife missile that makes basically one appearance. It really emphasizes Banks' strength as a writer, that there's a compelling narrative here without the diversity of worldbuilding. Overall this is one of the denser written Culture novels, it succeeds on the strength of its characterization, its prose (top rate even for Banks) and because the main situation is so interesting.
-I would like to see a detailed review at some point by someone that read this as their first Culture novel, see what they thought was going on. As is, the connections were subtle but pretty pervasive, making this one of the core 'conventional' Culture books. Looking at the range of the series it seems in a way the necessary step in fleshing out Special Circumstances--having seen their operation from the view of a non-Contact Cultureite and a mercenary, now we see it from the civilization being influenced. That the account also has an ex-Culture interferer makes the narrative considerably more tangled and interesting.
-De War is kept at considerable more distance in the text than Vosill--the framing of this makes it less reliable, there's less direct detail on his actions, and the conclusion of his story remains speculative even in-universe. Overall what one gets is restrained, collected, his choices coming largely through the stories he tells that are distorted to varying degrees. It's the measure of calm and worried professionalism that's at once companion to Vosill and very different from it, that makes for an effective study in contrasts.
-There's also the ironies across the piece. The doctor with the feel-good, do-good Culture ends up backing the monarchical system with the more ruthless
attitude and general killing. The ex-Culture bodyguard shows himself much more focused on guarding, care and idealistic defense. As well, there's the larger issue of Haspidus ultimately being the better choice than Tassasen, while seeming at first the more backward-looking, medieval and brutal society. In the end, though, amidst all the pageantry of tradition the king has an interest in standing in as a ruler and doing things for the society, and is even willing to innovate and distribute power to do that. The Protector General, while more directly charming and apparently progressive is ultimately self-absorbed to monstrous levels, I'd say that attitude came across fairly clearly in this reading. Banks uses the two men's vie towards sexuality as a shorthand, with UrLeyn's ultimate revealed backstory of rape and abuse indicating the unredeemable aspects of his regime. A bit simple, in some ways, but overall drawn out effectively enough.
-The dual narratives play to substantive change in different ways. For Vossil, a triumph as Oelph and the reader see just how many resources she has. For DeWar, a crashing down of everything he's worked for and the justifications he has for it, with his ending action left as more than a bit ambiguous. In each case the narrative seems utterly suitable, and there are enough discussions to make Haspidus and Tassasen credibly appear to be happening in the same world. Each is a different kind of response to the end of the Empire, each features a different take on what the Culture morally tries to do.
-Oelph is an effectively strong character, with the voice slowly changing in just the right direction to make the growth from naivety credible. On the other end, Perrund is a fascinating character even before the major twist, and her interactions with DeWar sparkle. It's not chemistry in a romantic sense, for the most part, but a real sense of two characters being quite interested in the views and assumptions of the other, which even across a rather sparse
-The first part of the narrative proper features Oelph fetching someone called the Doctor while reporting to someone he calls Master. I wonder how much of this was a deliberate play on Dr. Who.
-This novel is one I'm very glad I reread. It doesn't have quite the high points of Use of Weapons and lacks the overall range of setting that's typical for a Culture novel, but it's a very intense exploration of the heart of the Culture mission, and is in some ways Banks' best structured novel.
Similar to and better than: David Brin's Brightness Reef
Similar to and worse than: Ursula K. LeGuin's Lavinia