Shapechanger humanoid gets caught spying, sentenced to die in sewercell (aka septic tank, your enemies drown you in their shit), saved at last minute by oversized three-legged employer. On way to new assignment, spaceship shot out from under him. Picked up by incompetent mercenaries, half of whom die first in misguided attempt to loot a temple, next in attempt to steal bow laser from sailing ship on orbital platform hours away from being destroyed and the sailing ship runs into an iceberg anyway. (We’re still on the orbital platform, FYI.) Escapes to island inhabited by cannibals. Escapes cannibals, or most of him does. (Still on platform.)
And I was barely halfway through. Later there’s a Galactic Derby sort-of poker game with designated victims dying on the turn of a card, a truly thrilling in-flight escape from a space ship and what amounts to an extended version of that old Kaypro II PC game Mystic (I think it was called) through a bunch of claustrophobic tunnels and caverns on a not-so-dead planet.
When you read all that you probably think, wow, imaginative slam-bang-action-sf-adventure, and you’d be right. It’s well written, good characters, many great settings that make you feel like an experienced interplanetary traveler, and if you like epic space battles you’re totally there.
My biggest “but” is that these characters spend way too much time in their own heads, which extends and slows down what really are fabulous action scenes to the point of dozability. The galaxy is at war, the religious fanatic Idirans against the relentlessly secular Culture, and each set piece is designed to illustrate one view or the other. The cannibals in particular are an object if heavy-handed lesson in cult religion taken too far, and the Damage game is a revolting and interminable example of laissez-faire conspicuous consumption secularity. I got it, I got it, I was through with both scenes a long time before the author was.
This would make a terrific film, partly because the script would have to be significantly pared down from the text. As a book, it seriously needed an editor, but I kept reading it right to the very end, so I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I did skip a lot.