So, Consider Phlebas. The Elliot quote suggests a certain ambition beyond the standard space opera, and the novel often delivers on it, incorporating themes of transformation, decay and death that echo The Waste Land. It's also a gripping space opera, following a rather unsavoury, ruthless protagonist on a quest for a MacGuffin. There are amazing set-pieces, like a game of chance on a world that is slated for destruction, vivid descriptions of fantastic worlds and places and some effective renderings of weird or non-human states of mind.
There's a complex plot that makes you think against the warp of the typical space opera, in so far as, if you think the arguments through, the protagonist's enemies emerge as the better side in this war. There are moments when the narrative seems to flounder under a sometimes over-dense style, but the last three chapters are a harrowing race to destruction that left me somewhat shattered.
I still don't know why anyone should care for the protagonist, least of all the two people who come to during the course of this novel. He's ruthless, murderous and completely self-seeking, willing to kill, lie and bide his time with one lover while trying to work his way back to a former lover and basically destroy anyone or anything to achieve his ends. At least he has the strength of his fanatical opposition to the Culture, an opposition that seems increasingly flawed and baseless as more is learned about his nature.
I also expect this to be something of a prelude; while there was much that I enjoyed abut this novel, not least its unflinching depiction of he consequences of religious fanaticism, this story feels something of a footnote. I'm certainly looking forward to my next Banks novel - a re-read of The Player Of Games!