Jernau Morat Gurgeh is living a life of plenty and leisure in the Culture, Iain M. Bank's post scarcity galactic civilization controlled by machine intelligences. Gurgeh is also a master of games, the best player of any type of game the Culture has to offer. Yet, he is growing restless, feeling as if something is amiss with his life. In search for something new he reaches out to the Culture, and their special circumstances branch arranges for him to play an alien game unlike anything else. A game that determines the functioning of an entire society.
This is the setup in The Payer of Games, Bank's second book in the Culture series. As its predecessor, Consider Plebas, it is a really good piece of Science Fiction. I can not help but to admire the drama and relationships between the characters, in addition to the world-building. In the beginning of the book Gurgeh is an alpha male of sorts, competitive, and something of a misfit in a society where everyone has equal value. In turn he becomes the human observer of the brutal Empire of Azad and a player of its often sadistic great game. By the end of the book he has changed through a painful, but nice character arc. Moreover the book is about games - everyone plays them and, one realizes after a while, everything is a game. Gurgeh may be a master of games, but he is also played by the Culture, and by a few of the other characters. I liked how these themes became apparent as I read the book.