"Reamde" is, the author tells us, a twisting of the words "Read me" which appear with most software programs. They are twisted because of a virus flooding the Internet's fictional game world of T'Rain. Players in that world compete in medieval dream battles for digital gold. The Re4amde virus hijacks the game and forces players to pay fees to recover their loot. Hence we are introduced to "ransomware" and the ongoing intriguing worlds of Neal Stephenson. You don't have to be a Net nerd to understand this - Stephenson does a very good job of indoctrinating the reader into high technology.
I am allowing four stars here not because I think it is as good a novel as "Cryptonomicon" (I don't think it is), but because Stephenson is simply one of the most provocative and entertaining writers out there. So the credit here goes to his bold, funny, epic, hugely descriptive and all-encompassing barrages of characters and scenes. Some readers are put off by Stephenson's asides and diversions - I wish there were more of them. But eventually, even this wide-reaching adventure seems to get bogged down in so many gun fights and stalk-and-destroy episodes that the head whirls and the senses are numbed. The first half, set in southern China, is the best portion. I do not fault Stephenson in any way for any of his narratives; I do fault my own patience when I have encountered a whole 1056-page realm of shoot-outs, blow-ups, hostage-bashing, hi-jacking and waylaying. That's where the senses get numbed, from overkill, even if well-described as it is here. Yet even Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy cannot/do not hold a candle to this sort of yarn weaving.
This could easily have been called "Zula's Story" as it is the feisty and unforgiving character of this little Eritrean woman, Zula Forthrast, who completely carries the novel. We do also get to like the Russian, Sokolov (no first name), a veritable James Bond of energy and resourcefulness, and to a lesser degree the Hungarian, Csonger Takacs, the reluctant bodyguard. While I understand the authors blunt detailing of, complete distaste for, and non-sympathy for terrorists (nothing could possibly make me like them, not even Abdallah Jones), I found myself liking the Chinese hacker, Marlon, in spite of the fact that I think creators of viruses should be strung up on an anthill and forgotten. And there is the tenacious and endurable Chinese guide Qian Yuxia (another reluctant heroine), and of course the fatherly Richard Forthrast, whose reminiscences into his smuggling days on the Idaho-B.C. border could make an interesting novel by itself.