A large empire broke up in the decade or so preceding the action, apparently from meteor or asteroid strikes that severely affected farming across much of the globe. The remnants of the empire iain m banks pdf war with one another.
The narrative alternates chapter-by-chapter between two concurrent story-lines, with alternating chapter headings of The Doctor and The Bodyguard. The first storyline is presented as a written account from Oelph, publicly a doctor’s assistant, but privately a spy for an individual identified only as “Master”, to whom much of the account is addressed. Oelph is the assistant to Vosill, the personal doctor to King Quience of Haspidus and a woman. The latter is unheard of in the patriarchal kingdom, and is tolerated only because Vosill claims citizenship in the far-off country of Drezen.