This is the next of Iain Banks's "Culture" novels, about a superadvanced civilization of hyperintelligent spacecraft the size of small planets, and the hedonistic sentient species who live under their umbrella, whose main job (if they can be said to have any gainful occupation at all) is figuring out how to assimilate (or not) newer civilizations into the Culture.
I open the book and read the first chapter. And the chapter after that, and the chapter after that, and ... no hyperintelligent spacecraft, no spacefaring races or drug glands or people who can change gender at will. Ah, okay. I get it. "Inversions." Banks likes these games. We're inverting (for one thing) the novel you think you're going to get. There's no space. There's just a planet-bound civilization reminiscent of late-medieval Europe with a dash of Ottoman Empire. The book follows parallel (or inverted) stories of two foreigners, a man and a woman, serving in neighboring royal courts on this planet. One is the king's bodyguard, the other guards a different king's body, as his royal physician. The man is fending off plots to assassinate his king, the woman largely fending off plots to eliminate herself, by the king's court, who disapprove of a foreigner, a foreign woman, serving as the court physician. Each one loves someone in their thread; in the woman's story, the love is doomed, in the man's it is consummated. I could go on.
As usual with Banks, it's an eye-bulging page-turner, although more serene than his previous books. A lot of the forward motion comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, these two foreigners are citizens of the Culture, right? Right? They hint at it, not overtly. There are some strange goings on, but not necessarily preternaturally strange. The man's thread comes closest to spelling it out, with a fable he tells a sick child, about two lovers who came from a faraway land where everything's taken care of for them, and there is no sickness or disease or work or poverty, and how they fought over the extent to which they can morally enforce change on weaker societies, and ultimately separated because of their quarrel. The woman's thread, told from the perspective of her intern, secretly ordered by the court to spy on her in hopes of ferretting out information that would condemn her in the eyes of her doting king and require her to be put to the Question in the torturer's chamber, is the more compelling, probably because she is in more personal peril than the man. Ultimately, the forces of misogynistic feudalism win out, and, in the book's climax, she is dragged off to the torture chamber, where she is stripped and shaved for her sufferings and depredations. And just as the chief torturer is about to open the proceedings with a gang rape, the doctor is like, "Wait, you're serious? You're not just trying to scare me? Yeah, no." And BLAM, everyone's head explodes. And it's such a relief. Just, "OH, that broken dagger she's always carrying is actually a Mind Drone. Right. This is a Culture novel."
It's unclear to me if the two were on vacation from the Culture, or permanent expats, or actually working for Special Circumstances, using dirty tricks to sow the seeds of the cultural change that would prepare the civilization for assimilation in a couple centuries. The doctor eventually disappears after boarding a boat leaving the kingdom; she "had been invited to dine with the vessel's captain that evening, but had sent a note declining the invitation, citing an indisposition due to special circumstances." Har har.
The book ends in a typically nostalgic and effective Banksian coda. The tale-teller--the doctor's intern/spy--reflects from the distance of old-age on the events during the time he knew her, and how he had come to fall in love with her, and how he never really understood some of the events that happened, but that, after 60 years consideration, he's pretty sure that that thing that happened in the torture chamber ... yeah, that was weird.