This is the second Iain M. Banks I've read, and I approached it with great expections after enjoying Consider Phlebas so much. It tells the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a human employee of the Culture who is basically used to do their dirty work - sent in undercover to change the political or military situation in a given location. As capable as Zakalwe is though, there is a secret buried deep in his past...
The manner in which the way the book is written is quite different to normal. It has two strands than run in alternate chapters through the book. The first is what could be called the 'real-time' thread, which describes the story of the current events; whereas the second thread is, in essence, a series of short-stories that describe aspects of Zakalwe's past. Crucially, the stories in this second thread are presented in reverse order - the later the chapter the earlier the point it describes in Zakalwe's life. It works quite well, as the events in the 'real' story reach a climax, so the timeline of the reverse story reaches a crucial point alluded to through the entire book.
There's no doubt that the book is an enjoyable read, Banks' style is very readable and there is plenty of meat to the book. I do, however, have a bit of a problem with the ending. There is a twist, of sorts, though to be honest it is less of a twist and more of a complete surprise. A good twist should make your mouth drop and get you riffling back through the pages to find half-remembered references and hints. The ending of this book does no such thing, it's just a bit of a slap in the face, with no explanation. Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but if so it's because I think the quality of the rest of the book deserves a good twist.
Nonetheless it is still a good read. Excession is up next and apparently that is more similar to Consider Phlebas, so I'm looking forward to it.