With Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, Matter, coming out in February, it's a good time to revisit one of his lesser-known Culture novels, Inversions. One of the reasons why this book may not be as instantly-recognizable in the Culture pantheon as his space operas Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward is that it's not set in outer space. In fact, it's set entirely on a semi-Medieval planet where a Culture agent has been sent to study the natives — and has gone native herself.
She's become a doctor to the king (whom she secretly loves), and must cope with backwards science as well as old-fashioned social roles to complete her mission. Though we're never quite sure what that mission is, and that's the beauty of this novel. It's not about space fights and war; it's about the murkiness of human relationships.
Inversions reminds me a little bit of Karen Joy Fowler's alien-alone-on-earth novel Sarah Canary because nobody realizes that the aliens in both novels are aliens. Instead, the general population just attribute the strange behaviors of both women to craziness, or uppity tendencies. Thrust into a world where space travel is just a fantasy, the Doctor in Inversions wants only to help her beloved King (who isn't attracted to her because her status as Doctor makes her unfeminine and turns him off). But there are so many intrigues within intrigues at court that she may never succeed.
Plus, there is another mysterious figure on the planet with whom she shares a past. Mix that shadowy history up with scheming courtesans, swordplay, and meditations on the proper place of torture in a political regime, and you've got an amazing novel. So while you're pining for Matter, pick up a copy of Inversions — its Medieval world occupied by secret Culture agents is both vivid and enticing.