Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Reamde is not an easy book to review. It is a wast brick of over 1000 pages. My copy is, in my eyes, beautifully bound, partially deckle edged, and with the typography made by someone who actually wants to make reading a pleasurable activity. Which means I was biased towards it, favourably, even before I got around to read it.

Geographically the story starts in Iowa, then romps on to Seattle and China, before returning to north America via a side-trips to Taiwan and the Philippines respectively, and the plot-lines are equally disparate, romping, and – not to forget – with a body count on par with that of the goriest action flicks.

I chose the word “romp” because in some ways and despite the terrible things happening to unsuspecting and, to borrow a term from Stephenson himself – mundane, people, it is a book that is a pleasure to read.

The first person we meet is Richard. He is a fiftyish entrepreneur in the gaming business who decides to help his niece Zula, whose expertise is in magma flow modelling, by giving her a job in the company. Soon after her boyfriend Peter becomes entangled with shady people, for the simple reason that he needs money to stay afloat during the recession. Accidentally he transfers a virus to one of the mobsters, the result of which is that all the data the mobsters need to make money gets encrypted and held hostage in the World of Warcraft-like game T’Rain – the game made by Richard’s company. Pointers leads to China so the Russian mobster grabs his in-house Hungarian hacker Csongor, Zula, and her boyfriend and goes to Xiamen, to find the Chinese hacker and take him out. The mobster’s head of security, Sokolov, is secretly worried about the clinical sanity of his boss but doesn’t dare break a contract. And so it starts…

The people we learn to know are only trying to stay alive, to keep a head above the water and to continue to breathe, and by each of these moments they step by step slip so far into the realm of the outright unbelievable believability becomes a moot point – each step was reasonable so the end result must be reasonable too, right?

No. The end result is not reasonable, it is way over the hill. People gets humiliated, people get shot, people dies. The bad guys kills indiscriminately. They also get killed that way, whenever possible, because soon enough it is clear to the reasonable mundane people that it is the only way to stay alive.

A real thriller, in other words, and in the true sense of it. And I loved it. Absolutely loved every bit of it.

And yet I am a wee bit disappointed. Even when smiling a bit over the brief stop-over in the Philippines, a country featuring heavily back in Cryptonomicon, and even as I was worried over the fate of this character or that, I missed the Big Ideas part that often are so central to Stephenson’s books. In this Reamde is more kin to Zodiac or Cobweb (of which Cobweb is the one worth picking up – it dates back to the anthrax fears of the late 90’s) than it is to Anathem.

Anathem, on the other hand, was the ultimate Big Ideas novel, so admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. Because a good romp, a good thriller and some decent well-written suspense, can be a fantastic experience too. And that Reamde is.

Definitely recommended.

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