Warning: This review contains spoilers about the review. Continue reading only if you have already read this review or if you are unconcerned about ruining the ending of this review.
Open with a joke about the size and weight of this book making it good for a number of non-reading-related purposes. Go on to comment on the excessive amounts of esoteric terminology.
That's probably how most reviews of this book begin, and they're probably right in doing so. Of course, plenty of books are justified in their length (or at least, we tell them they're justified for fear that they'll sneak off our shelves and kill us in our sleep if we say otherwise). And I see plenty of reviews that go on to say that they like Banks' no-holds-barred use of terminology, counting it as a sign of good worldbuilding. I'm not as convinced that The Algebraist is satisfactory in either regard, but let's give it the benefit of a doubt. Let's assume that Banks is justified in both these respects and go on to address the next question: if a reader can get past these two hurdles, does he or she find a worthwhile story?
(Review spoiler alert: the answer is "No.")
The heart of this space opera is Fassin Taak's search for a mathematical Transform that will unscramble a list of coordinates of secret wormholes that connect almost every inhabited system in the galaxy. The Mercatoria, ostensibly the good guys, would kill for this sort of information, since wormholes are the only viable method of faster-than-light travel and connecting two systems by wormhole is an arduous process. Come to think of it, anyone would kill to get the information, or to keep it hidden, which makes Fassin's search quite difficult.
Banks spends the majority of this book (and that is a lot of book right there) keeping coy about whether or not any such secret wormhole network exists. In the end, the revelation is somewhat disappointing, and even a little predictable to those well-versed in this sort of science fiction story. (Gas-dwelling alien species think alike.) And it turns out not to have much bearing on the other major plot in the book, the invasion of Fassin's home system, Ulubis, even though Fassin's in such a hurry to find the Transform so he can get help before the invasion fleet arrives. So the two main plots become disconnected, and neither are very satisfying on their own.
(Review spoiler alert: I'm trying to do this review without any actual plot spoilers, so forgive my ambiguity.)
To discuss the Dweller List and its Transform, one must discuss the Dwellers themselves. I have to confess to having a soft spot for absurdist, relaxed aliens who have a society based on the accumulation of "kudos" but happen to be lying on a cache of hyper-advanced weaponry should a threat come calling. Pretty much all of the Awesome in The Algebraist is a result, directly or indirectly of action or utterance of a Dweller or Dwellers. My favourite example would probably be where Archmandrite Luseferous begins shooting live humans out into space unless the Dwellers produce Fassin:
Luseferous pointed furiously at the line of bodies heading slowly towards the planet. "Don't you fuckwits understand? That doesn't stop until I get what I want!"
The three Dwellers twisted to look as one. "Hmm," Peripule said thoughtfully. "I do hope you have enough people."
I'll save talking about how this pushes Luseferous from deliciously evil to laughable stereotype for later. I just want to revel in how wonderfully apathetic the Dwellers are. Not that I condone apathy toward humans. But the Dwellers' attitude is very alien, and as the above example demonstrates, they really have no reason to care about human lives.
(Review spoiler alert: The following is about the only praise I have for The Algebraist, so lap it up while the lapping is good.)
Unfortunately, our glimpse at Dweller society is brief compared to the time Fassin spends traipsing about the rest of the galaxy meeting a couple of other random species. We learn that the Dwellers don't really fight in factions anymore so much as have "Formal Wars" over somewhat trivial issues. Nevertheless, Dweller society isn't very cohesive—many Dwellers are completely ignorant of matters like military capability and whether or not they have a secret wormhole network. There's just so much potential in this single species. Despite the fact that a good chunk of the book happens in Dweller gas giants and Fassin spends most of his time with Dwellers, there's so much more we could have learned.
(Review spoiler alert: And now we resume our regularly-scheduled criticism.)
Compared to the intriguing Dwellers, the actual object of Fassin's quest is far less interesting. Banks makes a big deal over the fact that Fassin needs to find "the Transform," which turns out to be an equation written in "alien algebra" (hence the title, The Algebraist). Supposedly this list and its Transform are so important because they'd give the Mercatoria (or its enemies) access to a pre-existing network of wormholes. If this network exists, the Dwellers so far haven't offered to share it with the Quick species. No one seems to mention why finding proof of this network would motivate the Dwellers to change this position. And if the Mercatoria has the means to find the wormholes, what do they intend to do? Take the wormhole portals by arms? Because we've already established that the Dwellers, while never openly hostile, don't permit that sort of tactic and tend to respond with overwhelming force.
The actual quest is a mundane journey that consists of following various Dwellers who may have information Fassin needs. Along the way, he gets into a series of scrapes. At first, there's pressure to find the Transform as soon as possible, so that the Mercatoria can summon reinforcements before Luseferous' invasion fleet arrives in Ulubis. Gradually, however, this becomes less of an issue, and in the end Fassin's search doesn't have any effect on the outcome of the invasion. Not that it matters, since the invasion itself turns out to be a minor problem anyway.
The invasion's mastermind, Archmandrite Luseferous, also begins the book as a credible threat. He's intelligent, ruthless, and sadistic. Also, Banks goes out of his way to make it clear the Luseferous isn't a delusional megalomaniac who ignores his advisers and compromises his plans out of ego or pride. This credibility erodes gradually as Luseferous' fleet travels to Ulubis, culminating in Luseferous' humiliation and defeat because he antagonizes a couple of Dwellers in search for this mythical Transform. And there's no real reason for this sudden change in characterization, other than the fact that Banks needs Luseferous' invasion to fail, of course. That the invasion failure is a result of miscalculations and bad characterization should be enough to set off alarms in the cautious reader's head.
Sandwiched in between, among, and pretty much everywhere these two plots aren't, are various sub-plots, revenge plots, and miscellaneous exposition about the types of species that inhabit the galaxy. The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn't a bad thing). The fact that artificial intelligences are anathema forms an important point in the structure of the Mercatoria, which is fine. But then Banks includes an entire subplot involving hidden artificial intelligences, and Fassin's Head Gardener turns out to be an artificial intelligence, and all the while I'm just wondering … why?
There's a lot going on in The Algebraist. And a lot of it goes wrong. But it all goes wrong for the same reason: after a strong opening, the book presents a weak resolution with every possible threat declawed before it could be defeated. It's as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patience evaporated. Judging from the praise that others have heaped upon this book, this is a situation where your mileage will vary. However, I urge you to think twice. There is a story somewhere in the depths of The Algebraist, but extracting and parsing it is not for the faint of heart … and I question whether the end result worth the effort.