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(352)

Iain M Banks, Orbit, £18.99

Lededje Y'breq was murdered by the man who owned her as a slave - but the fact that she died isn't going to stop her getting revenge. Neither is the fact that Joiler Veppers, her assassin, is the richest and most powerful man on the planet.

Meanwhile, a virtual war is raging over the existence of hell. This has always been a thorny issue with advanced galactic civilisations, some of whom feel that the existence of hell is a barbaric anachronism. Others, however, keep huge virtual hells running as afterlives for people who did wrong in their lives.

Iain M Banks clearly relishes this opportunity to put his twisted imagination to work. Though the virtual souls who inhabit these hells cannot die twice, they become grotesquely deformed by the abuse of malicious demons.

Banks explores ideas around hell and crime and punishment. The villain Veppers represents the worst of the super-rich. His oily misogyny is reminiscent of a cross between Richard Desmond and Hugh Hefner, but with a splash of Tony Blair's arrogance.

This novel is the latest in Banks's Culture series but probably isn't the best place for newcomers to start. There are so many strands to the plot that at times it can be difficult to keep track. At 640 pages this is a monster, and there are points when you wonder if it might have been done a little more succinctly. But other than that, sit back and enjoy the ride to hell.