Review: Neal Stephenson's REAMDE

I tend to think authors who write books of over 1000 pages are a bit indulgent and rely on the good will of their rabid fans. But since I am one of those fans, I loved every page of Neal Stephenson's REAMDE (William Morrow, 2011). It's a page-turning geeky techno-thriller that reads like a mashup of Guy Ritchie movies (think Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels), James Bond movies, and all the hacker movies you've ever seen.

Our heroine Zula is an Eritrean orphan adopted by an Iowan family, whose patriarch is a former smuggler turned head of T'Rain, a multibillion-dollar massively multiplayer online role-playing game. When her boyfriend's scheme to sell stolen credit card numbers goes bad, she becomes aware of REAMDE, a virus that holds players hostage in return for real money. This leads to a deadly global chase that includes a great cast of protagonists (Zula and her uncle, teenage Chinese hackers, a beautiful Chinese-British M16 spy, a plucky Chinese tea seller, a retired Russian military security contractor, a Hungarian hacker, and gun toting survivalists in Idaho) and villians (a rogue Russian mobster and jihadists following a charismatic and urbane leader). The characters bounce from Seattle to Xiamen, China to Taiwan to the Phillipines to British Columbia; are captured, fight, kill people, fall in love, commandeer boats and blow up buildings; and finally converge at the Canadian-US border mountains in an Afghanistan-guerilla-style showdown. And, oh yeah, there's a man-eating mountain lion on the loose.

One of the parts I enjoyed the most was the intricacies of T'Rain, including the organic development of a style-based war (the Earthtones versus the Brights) to the dismay of the founders who were promoting a more conventional Good versus Evil storyline; the economics of virtual reality; and the ego clashes between two prolific, but possibly mediocre, fantasy writers of the game.

The book is also laugh out loud funny. Here's a sample, a conversation between Jones (the charismatic jihadist) and Zula, his hostage, who is trying to avoid being executed after she has killed one of her captors with a DVD of the movie, Love Actually:

"My uncle can get you across the U.S. border," she tried.

Jones grinned.

She realized that Jones genuinely liked her. Was, at some level, looking for an excuse not to kill her. "No, really?" he asked. "The same uncle?"

"The same one."

"The black sheep," he said, piecing it together. "The one you went to visit in British Columbia."

"We're in the British Columbia," she reminded him.

"I really must meet this chap," Jones said, switching to his sarcastic-posh accent.

"I'm sure it can be arranged."

"Then if you don't mind," he said, "my four comrades and I are now going to be quite busy for a while, trying not to die. If we are able to string a couple of nonfatal days together, we may then return to your proposal."

"How can I help?" Zula asked.

"Stop killing people," he suggested.

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