I recently started reading Iain Banks and have been pleasantly surprised. I've read his Player of Games, a bit of On the Use of Weapons and right now I'm reading The Algebraist. So far I think Player was the best read, but I haven't finished Algebraist yet so you never know.
The books I've been reading by Banks have had a "Space Opera" style to them. That is, planet hopping human beans off on some epic quest of epic-ness. They usually have a backdrop of some gigantic, ancient, over-reaching organization that is vastly older than, and presumably superior to, humanity.
I can quickly become bored with a story in that sort of setting: the character's goals are obviously unimportant in the larger scheme of things, so to keep my interest, the author needs to make an interesting story or characters or whatever. Player achieved this by mixing the description of a game and using it as a metaphor for a society.
As the title may indicate, Player of Games is about a person who is a master of various sorts of games. These are "big, serious" games like chess (as opposed to something along the lines of "go fish"). He is able to quickly master just about any game, no matter how alien or convoluted, but has become bored recently due to a lack of challenge.
The huge, ancient galaxy-spanning society (called "the Culture") is trying to find a less violent way of dealing with a smaller, aggressive empire society. Put another way, they want to find a cheaper alternative to an all-out war.
The shadowy rulers of the Culture feel that a particular tournament holds the key to subjugating the empire with less violence than would be required: if the Culture can demonstrate their superiority by winning the tournament then the empire types may well let a more protracted, far more devastating conflict slide. This is where the big, galaxy-spanning Culture meets the individual protagonist to bring things to a more personal level.
The player starts off feeling rather ambivalent about the empire but he becomes more involved because of the game he is asked to compete in. Partially because of the simple challenge to compete, and partially because of the depth and complexity of the game, he becomes more absorbed with the situation to the point where it becomes almost an obsession. It turns out that the game is an excellent allegory for the greater society of the Empire: in order to succeed, one must create temporary alliances, duplicitous relationships which are to be used and then discarded when no longer useful.
I found the crass, calculating nature of the interaction between the Culture and the empire to be especially relevant to the world of today, with its collapsing international markets and where expedience trumps morals on a regular basis. There are additional details, like how the Player cheats to try and win an especially important achievement and the nature of AIs in the Culture. All this combined to create a story that kept me occupied for a while.
Right now is a very stressful time for me. It is very much a blessing to be able to put my mind in neutral because if it were in drive I'd start heading for the nearest ditch.