A space opera-esque allegory with chess-vibes. It is interesting to finally read serious utopian worlds (i.e., The Culture). Except that even utopian worlds are not always so utopian; where AI minds rule with calculated shrewdness.
In a post-scarcity world, experiencing meaning seems to be a tough challenge.
The allegory with our own predatory capitalistic world is clear when Gurgeh visits the Azad empire. I'd say it is pretty exemplary for the whole book: the writing is clear and effective. Others write that this book is the most minimalistic in style relative to all Ian's books in The Culture series.
There are many themes that are still topics of societal debates; e.g., legal rights of machines/AIs, gender fluidity, forms of socialism, and more.
Whenever Gurgeh plays any games, I get the feeling that its level of seriousness is heavily derived from chess in our real world. At least in part of the world, Chess matches and tournaments, and chess players, enjoy a certain authority. Gurgeh is the most honest of players; purely interested in the beauty of the game itself.
Ian expertly weaves this narrative into a world that feels so much bigger. And I as the reader felt as if there were many plot threads and motivations that just went beyond my human comprehension; like one would in The Culture.
I enjoyed reading this book, for all its strengths. Though I want to remark that emotional investment in characters is not one of those strengths (i.e., it is kept fairly minimal). But that also sort of fits with the style of science fiction that Ian writes.