An agent of a galaxy spanning intelligence service returns home for her father's funeral and finds herself involved in a power struggle that threatens an entire world. The book starts with a woman and an AI drone watching a medieval looking army on the march. The woman's name is Djan Seriy Anaplian and the drone is Turminder Xuss. At Djan's order Turminder sends in a knife missile that destroys most of the weapons and kills a handful of the men causing chaos and confusion.
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Prince Ferbin, son of King Hausk has just witnessed the assassination of his father by his most trusted adviser Mertis tyl Loesp, who betrayed the king with the apparent support of the rest of the court.
Meanwhile the youngest son of the king, Prince Oramen, is told his brother and father both died on the battlefield. Since he still is a year away from coming of age Mertis takes on the role of regent, planning to kill Oramen before the year is out. They ride out to meet the king's returning body and we see that although his people appear to be technologically primitive, riding horses into battle, there are alien ambassadors from a species named the Oct among them.
Ferbin is on the run now, with no one to trust except his faithful manservant Choubris Holse and his long lost sister Djan. We learn that Djan was raised as a royal princess of the house of Hausk, but left the kingdom to join an alien empire called the Culture.
We learn that Ferbin's people live on an artificial Shellworld called Sursamen. Shellwords being ancient structures built by a vanished race, and formed of multiple spheres, each containing a smaller sphere inside. At the center is a hollow core in which a powerful alien lives, known to the inhabitants of the Shellworld as the WorldGod. Each level has its own artificial sun and distinct ecosystem.
Ferbin's people are known as the Sarl, they live on the eighth level of Sursamen and are the proteges of a more advanced species known as the Oct. The Oct are suspected by the Culture of some sort of illicit interference within the Shellworld, but there is not enough proof for intervention yet so they plan to send an agent in.
Djan meanwhile is still working with the drone Turminder, we learn that she is on assignment for Special Circumstances, the intelligence and intervention agency of the Culture. The Culture being a society of allied species governed by AI's that spans the known galaxy. After being informed of her family tragedy she is given leave from her current assignment to return home for the funerals.
Ferbin goes hunting for his sister, knowing only that she is allied with the powerful Culture. He and Holse have a series of adventures but eventually manage to ascend the levels. Along the way Holse's feudal mindset is somewhat challenged and expanded but the egalitarian politics of the outside. They eventually get a ship run into Djan as she approaches the Shellworld.
Special Circumstances, needing an agent to look into the Oct activities on Sursamen, have assigned Djan to the mission since she is heading in anyway and has special insight as a native. She tells Ferbin about this, and warns him it will be very dangerous, but he agrees to return home with her anyway.
Accompanied by Turminder Xus they head to the ninth level, where Martis and Prince Oramen are supervising an archeological dig. But by the time they get there the young prince is dead, killed by an ancient machine that they have dug up. The machine was built by a long dead species for the purpose of destroying Shellworld's.
The Oct, who where the ones who orchestrated the dig, are as surprised as anyone by the discovery. They had hoped to find insight into the builders of the Shellworld, who they believe are their ancestors. Their plans are thrown into disarray and their subterfuge exposed.
The machine escapes the ninth level and makes its way towards the center of Sursamen, intent on fulfilling its original mission by first killing the WorldGod that protects the Shellword, and setting off a bomb at the very core.
Djan and Ferbin go after it hoping to stop it, but the machine manages to hack a dozen defense drones that are supposed to protect the core. With the assistance of a number of other parties from the Culture and the Shellworld most of the subverted drones are eventually defeated, but the machine is still massively powerful and bent on destruction.
Djan, Ferbin, and Holse are the last ones left at this point, and Djan comes up with one last desperate plan. One of the other two needs to surrender to the machine. It will kill and then dissect them to gauge their threat level, but after it finds them harmless it will ignore Djan's approach. Then she can get close enough to do some damage using her Special Circumstances enhancements. Ferbin immediately surrenders, and the plan succeeds when Djan gets close enough to detonate the antimatter reactor that powers her enhancements.
There's an epilogue in which we see Holse has returned to his home and family, and is thinking about running for office since the royal family is all dead and he thinks the kingdom is ready for a new way of life.
Best part of story, including ending:
The Shellworld and the Culture are both really interesting concepts, and the set up is a neat way of mixing feudal and spacefaring cultures.
Best scene in story:
When the machine wakes up and blasts the Oct and everyone else it's a shock, and then things get really interesting, the whole royal family intrigue thing suddenly seems unimportant. The final battle scenes are pretty great too.
Opinion about the main character:
Djan is an interesting immigrant type, a full member of the galactic Culture, but still harboring psychological consequences from growing up as a girl in a feudal society.