In Banks’s long-running Culture series of novels, an advanced interstellar civilization that has transcended physical limitations and material needs occasionally intervenes in the affairs of lesser species. In this installment (after Look to Windward ), two medieval kingdoms occupying different levels within a hollow world are at war. As one emerges victorious, its king is murdered, and a treacherous adviser moves to control the throne. The forces of the Culture are soon pulled into the affair—not only because the king’s daughter is one of its agents but also because this seemingly backwards world may be more than it seems.
Orbit. 608 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 0316005363
Onion A. V. Club
"After seven books collecting Culture tales of various lengths and experimental structures, the prolific Scottish writer has produced an almost-perfect work of 21st-century science fiction. Combining the hard SF of Larry Niven, Robert L. Forward, and Robert Anton Wilson with the light, fantastic touch of Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony, Matter is a page-turner with humor, suspense, and a huge imagination that would be intimidating if it weren’t so thoroughly humane." Donna Bowman
"As with any of Iain’s books to date, in Matter he deals with the material with wit and intelligence, as well as his trademark complexity and violence. It does manage to mix genres with aplomb, and there are some pleasingly jarring cultural moments when aliens intermix." Mark Yon
"The Culture novels (there are eight of them) are about the challenges of a world in which thinking beings must deal with one another across vertiginous gulfs of cultural and technological difference—a world, in other words, both completely different from and identical to our own." Lev Grossman
"Matter strives to strike a balance between the medieval shenanigans on Sursamen and the galactic wonders of the Culture, but it fails. … Ultimately, Banks does provide a sense of a thronging milieu of wonders." Paul DiFillippo
"Banks gives us his usual array of cool ideas. … Is Matter the best Culture novel by Banks? No, that’s still Use of Weapons. However, Matter can sit comfortably alongside Consider Phlebas for second." J. P. Frantz
It has been eight years since the last Culture novel, and critics have clearly missed Banks’s unique combination of galactic wonder and quirky humor. Their anticipation made for high standards, and for most critics, Matter exceeded them. Many fans of this universe enjoyed the way Banks mixes space opera with royal intrigue, though a few felt he does not quite pull off this cultural collision with his usual finesse. A more common complaint concerned the book’s length and pacing. While most reviewers were, in the end, happy to immerse themselves in 600 more pages of Culture, the novel’s heft may make it a poor entry point for readers hoping to pick up the series for the first time. It may be best to start with the first in the series, Consider Phlebas (1987).