Publisher: Orbit (1990)
ISBN: 0 70888 358 3
Précis: The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of the Special Circumstances' foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks or military action.
The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him towards his present eminence, but despite all their dealings she did not know him as well as she thought.
The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman's life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence could see the horrors in his past.
Summary: Diziet Sma, overseeing a conference on some non- Culture world, is interupted with news that a crisis is brewing that requires Cheradenine Zakalwe's help. As his 'control' during the time he worked for Special Circumstances it is felt that she will have the best chance of convincing him to help. Reluctantly agreeing to a stand-in double taking her place during the conference she leaves, with the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, in search of him.
Travelling to the Crastalier Cluster they find that he has attempted to replicate the efforts of the Contact section in his own way. Unfortunately his efforts have managed to precipitate a major military crisis that threatens to escalate into full scale nuclear war. Unapologetic Cheradenine quite happily agrees to come with them and perform one more task for the Culture.
Proceeding to Voerenhutz they brief Cheradenine on the brewing crisis and why they need Tsoldrin Beychae to come out of retirement and side with them again. (Tsoldrin and Zakalwe had worked together before, some years past.) Equipping Cheradenine with transport, weaponry, money and communications gear the Culture ship stays well hidden outside the system awaiting Cheradenine's signal and escape, via a small module, out of the system.
Cheradenine hits on a plan of making himself look like a recently rich industry magnate who may be sympathetic to the local government's aims. By attracting attention he manages to get an interview with Tsoldrin and proceeds to break him out of the comfortable confinement he had been held in. Fighting then ensues with the capsule never making the rendezevous with the module for the flight out of the system. Stranded on the planet the two await the arrival of the local forces to arrest them.
Fortunately a tourist plane lands affording them an escape to the spaceport. With the Culture's help from afar they manage to sneak past security and board a starship headed for the Breskial system. For a few days all is calm, till the people back at Voerenhutz work out how the two managed to escape. Trouble ensues on the ship with Zakalwe managing to disable the ship's primary drive, rendering the captain unable to return back to Voerenhutz as ordered. Instead he heads for the Murssay system, nominally neutral, as the closest safe haven in which to effect repairs to the ship.
However forces from a planet near the crippled ship come for Cheradenine, believing him to be their savior and leader for the war they are fighting. Once there he is contacted by Diziet who tells him to go do what he does best, fight in the war and lead the priests he is with to victory if he can. With some relish Cheradenine tackles this task and after some time positions his forces for the final strike that will destroy the enemy army.
Before he can launch that strike he is informed by Diziet that a deal has been struck while he is fighting and that for the good of the entire local stellar cluster the priests must loose their war. Upset and angered by the news he wanders the defensive lines culminating in him being shot twice before the Culture can rescue him. Once back aboard the ship he refuses any treatment above that required to merely stablise his condition and demands that they deliver on their side of the bargain given that he has done his part in managing to get Tsoldrin out of retirement.
Accquiesing they take him to an as yet unvisited, by the Culture, world that is Zakalwe's home. Here we finally learn the dreadful secret that has plagued his life, driving him to try and repent though helping the Culture.
Comments: Okay, if you have read the book the summary does it absolutely no justice at all - I agree. But to be honest how can one write a summary of this book? For starters the book does not follow a linear sequence time wise during the flow of story telling. It hops from the future to the past to the present without warning and offering only small clues to allow you sort out the order in which events occur.
This, of course, makes it a fun book to read and argue about with friends as you try to support your chronology of events with snippets from the book. To make matters worse the flow of time for the future events starts in the far-ish future and works backwards till, at the end of the book, it joins up with the past story line to culminate in a dramatic climax in the middle of the story. It is a quite fiendish scheme, which again adds to the fun.
And the book is filled with characters who, even thought they have only brief parts, are well developed entities in their own right. For even more enjoyment the revealation that the end, or middle, of the book brings is hinted at throughout the whole story. Subsequent readings of the book allow you to pick up all these nuances that are often not fully understood the first time through.
Finally as a Culture book it has the best mix of violence, psychology and the nature of life in the Special Circumstances section of the Culture yet seen. All in all possibly the best book Iain has written, the only other contender for it would be 'The Bridge' which has a similar contorted and complex plot. If you never read any other Culture book, make sure you read this one.