The world of "Feersum Endjinn" is threatened with an apocalypse as an astronomical disaster threatens to make the Earth uninhabitable, but its characters often have different concerns. Bascule is trying to find his friend, an ant kidnapped by a giant bird. Count Sessine has just died for the last time, and wants to know why. Asura doesn't know who or what she is, but knows she has something she has to do. Chief Scientist Gadfium receives a message from an unexpected source as she tries to investigate why her government is more interested in winning a war than saving the world. Many of these things don't initially seem to have much relevance to the potential end of the world, but by the end of the book they will.
This book doesn't seem to get as much praise as Banks' better-known Culture series, but I thought it was as good as or better than most of the Culture novels. I liked the setting of a civilisation living off what a more technologically advanced civilisation had left behind, largely based in a gigantic castle built on a scale hundred of times larger than human scale. There was an interesting contrast in a society that is in many ways a feudal/medieval society but one that still has some access to high technology, including a vast and dangerous virtual reality environment which contains thousands of years of human knowledge.
It's a fairly short novel and as a result some aspects don't get explored in much detail. For example, there is more time spent on Bascule's quixotic quest to rescue his pet ant who was kidnapped by an eagle than there is on describing the methods by which the world could be saved from an impending apocalypse. I don't think this really detracts from the book, it's not really a hard-SF book so the details of how the technology works is largely irrelevant.
The characterisation is good with several interesting and likeable characters in it. Bascule is probably the best character in it, although his chapters are the hardest to read due to Bascule's narration using phonetic spelling. Reading prose where virtually every world is misspelled means that those chapters took several times longer to read than the other characters' chapters, but I think the overall effect does match Bascule's character well although I think if the entire book had been written like that I might not have made my way through. The other characters tend to be interesting as well, particularly the naive amnesiac Asura and Count Sessine's attempt to investigate his murder. At the start it is difficult to see how all the plot threads will tie together, but they do build up to one of Banks' more effective endings.
Overall, I'd say this might not quite be Banks' best novel, but it's still a very good read.
Rating : 9 / 10