Iain M. Banks' "Consider Phlebas" is the first book of the Culture Series. Unlike other series that I've gotten into, each of the eight books stands on it's own - the common thread being the Culture, a post-singularity civilization. This book follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a member of the Changer species, allied with the Idirans in a war against the Culture. The Changers are what I would call limited shape shifters. They can change their appearance to look like other humanoids but it takes time (days) to change and can only change so much. Horza uses his ability to infiltrate the Culture.
The book starts when one of the Culture's sentient Artificial Intelligences (a Mind) is stranded on a planet deep within the war zone. Horza is sent to retrieve the Mind for the Idirans. The book then becomes a rather convoluted path through side story lines and seemingly unrelated detours filled with Culture agents and totally unrelated but interesting characters that eventually returns Horza to his main mission.
I liked this book ... sorta. The book is long - 496 pages long - and a lot of the story, while interesting, felt unrelated, gratuitously tacked on, and sometimes distracting. The book felt like a quest-type fantasy book where the intrepid hero picks up his rag-tag team of misfits to rescue the princess except that the purpose that usually guides the quest was not very coherent in Banks' book. The ending is abrupt and a little jarring.
It took a while for me to realize that the main character isn't Horza but is the Culture. This shifted how I appraised the story. The Culture, the grouping of machines and humanoids, is the real main character and the twists and turns of the book are ways to introduce the reader to the it. Once I got past that, I found the book entertaining and worth reading. The 20 page appendices explaining the Culture-Idiran war, it's history, and how it ends was brief but interesting as well summing up where the characters and events fit in the grand history of the Culture. My one complaint would be a slight lack of depth. There is so much crammed into this book that almost everything is glossed over a little too much.
Other of the Culture books have received better reviews than this one and I expect to read some more of this potentially fascinating series in the near future.
P.S.: A little pet peeve of mine. The name of the author is bigger than the title of the book on the front cover. I have always considered this a little egotistical. It's like the author saying: "You should read this book not because it's a good read but because it's written by me." Of course it may not be the author's choice. It may be a publisher thing. It still irritates me though.