In Reamde, author Neil Stephenson weaves a complex and harrowing story, which spans the globe, and seemingly every walk of life. From the boardrooms of Corporate America, to computer hacker lairs, to the Middle Eastern’s hatred of the United States–and beyond. Richard Forthrast is the head of Corporation 9592, maker of a wildly popular online game called T’Rain (pronounced like Terrain). Richard is fully embedded in the game world, and ensuring everything in it runs smoothly. But when his niece, Zula, goes missing, he embarks on an investigation to find out where she is, and see her safely returned home. His investigation leads him to some startling discoveries, and will challenge him in ways he never expected. Can he track down Zula’s abductors and ensure her survival? Will he survive the attempt?
In a book as complex as it is lengthy, Reamde begins by introducing the two main protagonists, Richard Forthrast and his niece, Zula, in a scene describing a family reunion of unusual tastes. Zula, an orphan from the African country of Eritrea, has been raised by the Forthrast family in Iowa for most of her life. When she runs into her uncle Richard at the reunion, whom she hasn’t seen in several years, Richard finds himself immediately protective of the brilliant and spirited young woman that Zula has become.
The book moves slowly at first, mostly revolving around Richard and his past, and delving deeply into the mechanics, history, and construction of the fictional game at the heart of the story, T’Rain. It’s intriguing material, and to call it a page-turner is to undersell this book. Unfortunately, the beginnings may turn off some readers, as Reamde is what seems like several different genres mixed, and the first chapters are very much about video gaming and business acumen. Those who stick with it though are rewarded as events take a turn, and the story picks up dramatically.
It’s been said that some stories “can’t be made up”, but Reamde is proof that some of them can. The smallest and seemingly innocuous plot threads end up being central to the story. For example, Zula’s boyfriend, Peter, borrows a USB drive from her uncle Richard, which is unknowingly infected with the Reamde virus. Peter’s use of it during a questionable business transaction causes the buyer’s files to be encrypted–including the ones Peter just sold him–and being held for ransom. The buyer is understandably upset, showing up at Peter’s home for an explanation. Things quickly grow more complicated, as the creator of the virus is requiring payment in the game T’Rain, which can then be extracted for real profit anonymously. As attempts are made to pay the ransom within the game, the buyer’s boss arrives, demanding explanations, not liking what he’s hearing. He decides to take a more direct approach, and flies everyone to China–Zula included–to find the virus creator and extract some vengeance. Things go off the rails, and Peter and Zula’s lives are threatened at every turn.
And that’s just the beginning.
Reamde hosts a cast of characters that’s almost obnoxiously vast, and yet the author does an excellent job of making them not only believable, but memorable as well. Where many books might introduce a character, only to have them forgotten by the next page turn, Stephenson breaths life into each voice, and gives them their very own purpose in the story–from Richard and Zula, all the way down to the woman who offers her services in navigating them around in China. The lives of each of these characters is so true-to-life, it’s hard to imagine that they’re fictional characters at all. Their actions, opinions, mannerisms, and even accents all match perfectly their history, so that they’re practically four-dimensional; it’s rare that an author can make characters so believable, that the reader could actually imagine them stepping off the page, and holding a conversation with them.
Spanning over a thousand pages, Reamde is no book for the casual reader. In a way, it’s almost too long, and does have sections that drag by–kind of like a long movie with slow scenes. Yet it’s still a page-turner, even in the slower chapters–a tribute to the skill of the author. The story weaves and dodges, and as the characters split up, their stories aren’t yet over, as they impressively and–most importantly–believably collide into a climax that’s both suspenseful, and cathartic.
There’s not much to complain about in this book. Yes it’s long, and sometimes feels a little repetitive, but Neil Stephenson should be commended for penning a tremendously entertaining novel (and he has been). There are a couple plot threads that seem to be left aside, but aren’t particularly important to the outcome of events in the book. Perhaps the only disappointment would be that there’s not much of an epilogue. We’re shown where the characters end up, but not much more. After spending a thousand pages with this cast, caring whether they lived or died, fell in love, or not, readers are left with a very brief glimpse of life after the pages run out. It would have been nice for a little bit more.
– Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown