One of Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels, Matter is set primarily on a spendidly-realised Shellworld – a gigantic constructed planet with several levels, each of which is connected to the others by means of Towers, but each of which is lit by its own sun and moons (the sun a small thermonuclear device), and its own habitat. Strangely, for one of Banks’ novels, it’s told almost entirely chronologically, though from the viewpoints of several major characters.
Djan Seriy is a Special Circumstances agent for the Culture. A former princess, daughter of King Hausk of the Sarl (inhabitants of the Eighth level of the planet Sursamen), she was given as a child to the Culture in return for advice from an advisor which would enable Hausk to win his war of Unity against the ninth-level people, the Deldeyn. She cuts short her training to return to her homeworld after she is given news of the death of her father and brother, Ferbin, during a great victory over the Deldeyn. Ferbin, however, is on the run with his servant, Holse, after witnessing King Hausk’s death, not nobly and bravely during the battle, but traitorously at the hands of his trusted lieutenant, Mertis tyl Loesp. Also thrown into the fray is their younger brother, Oramen, made Prince Regent, and slowly realising that not everyone around him can be trusted.
The fantastically detailed alien worlds of The Algebraist, for example, are merely sketched (quite apart from the detailed history of the Shellworlds, which are wonderfully exotic, most of the inhabitants are vaguely humanoid), and the Culture is only peripheral to the main part of the novel. Banks does do a lot more explaining of the Culture and its ethos than in some of his other novels, so for a reader new to this series, it might be a good place to start (despite references to events described in Consider Phlebas and Excession). It’s also fairly straightforward in terms of plot – told like a thriller, in a way: the real villain is only made known at the end, though there are hints, earlier in the book, so that the ending isn’t a complete surprise. It’s a very human story, despite the sci-fi backdrop, and so is something of a departure for Banks.
While I enjoyed this, and liked the characters of Djan and Oramen, in particular, I don’t think it’s as good as, say, Excession, or The Algebraist, or The Player of Games – all three of which are fantastic sci-fi.