Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Considering the reputation the Culture series has, I was distinctly underwhelmed by this first novel in the series. I came to it expecting surprising new ideas and unputdownableness (yes, that is a real word — I just invented it), but what I got was a bog-standard, action/adventure space opera.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad book, just not the game changing, revolutionary new SF I was expecting.
The novel itself gets off to a slow start, as we are introduced to the Culture universe and the characters are assembled, but it picks up the pace in the second half when the main plot of the story kicks in.
We get to meet some interesting characters along the way, from our main protagonist, the shape-shifting Horza, to man-eating cannibals and AI drone Unaha-Closp, who seems to get all the best lines and gets my vote as most entertaining character.
Next up in the Culture series is The Player of Games. Let's hope the series has an upward trajectory now that the introductory novel is out of the way, and that the series lives up to it's reputation.