REAMDE by Neal Stephenson – review

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson
HarperCollins, 2011, 1,044 pages, 9780061977961, Kindle Edition, $14.99

Genre: Crime/Thriller

Though 1,044 pages of anything can be daunting to those going in for some light reading or trying to kill a layover, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde provides an action-packed novel that only dissolves into the occasional tedium because of the brightness of the novel’s highlights. No stranger to innovation, Stephenson’s delightful melding of the classic crime thriller and online gaming culture is a page-turner that will keep fans of both movements interested.

As a former drug smuggler and big game hunter who went on to own a ski resort and create the hugely popular MMORPG T’rain, Richard Forthrast has had a colorful career. An eye for opportunity and a well-developed disdain for rules has served him well. Unscrupulous history aside, he is intelligent, introspective, and cares for his large and disjointed family, especially his niece Zula. Never settling down long enough to have children, the vibrant and independent Zula is the kind of daughter a man like Richard would be proud of. When T’rain is hijacked by a hacker’s virus and Zula is kidnapped by an errant Russian Mobster and held hostage by an Islamist Jihadist, Richard and Zula are thrown into a whirlwind that ranges from the urban streets of the Chinese city of Xiamen and the forested mountains of British Columbia to the fantastic world of T’rain.

While Reamde is a departure from the forward thinking cyberpunk that most readers associate with Stephenson, the novel continues his penchant for pushing boundaries as seen most recently in his experimental The Mongoliad (2010). Aside from occasionally erratic word choice that both broadens and frustrates the reader (Stephenson uses the word “autodidact” instead of “self-taught” four times throughout the novel), the author challenges his reader by his method of delivery.

Though Richard and Zula are the two characters most central to the plot, they are not the novel’s only protagonists and by no means do they monopolize the reader’s attention. The seamless transition among the half-dozen intertwining storylines by which Stephenson narrates Reamde is as impressive as it is readable. The reader soon starts to think of the author as a kind of juggler as well as novelist, and Stephenson never drops the ball. Though the constant shuffling between each of the constantly converging and diverging lines of action can be tiresome, the reader quickly develops an emotional closeness to the novel’s characters.

Reamde suffers from its lack of attention to what readers will likely find most innovative and interesting. The sections dealing with the creation and maintenance of T’rain are only a small part of the story, but they leave the reader with withdrawal symptoms. During the too-frequent (though well-written) shoot-em-up battles between Russians and Jihadists, when adrenaline ought to be running high, the reader yearns to know more about the geological formation, history, and corresponding literary canon of the video-game. Perhaps the most exciting scenes are when Richard and MI6 hunt the hackers through the virtual world of T’rain while simultaneously searching for them in the real world. By comparison, the epic gun battle in the mountains of British Columbia that finishes the novel drags on too long.

Though Neal Stephenson’s Reamde has its faults, it offers a fun read that keeps the reader fascinated for most of its 1,044 pages, which is no mean feat. Cyberpunk junkies will be disappointed in Stephenson’s further departure from the genre that made him famous, but most readers will find his use of an MMORPG as a plot device in a crime thriller more than enough reason to pick up his tome.

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