I have finally finished the beast of a book that is Reamde by Neal Stephenson. The book is 1048 pages long, but actually it only took me about eight days to finish (it has taken me almost as long to write this review!) I read it in three or four big sessions where I read for a few hours at a time, plus a few shorter bits and pieces in between. I did find that to make any progress I did have to sit down for a while and get through a couple of hundred pages uninterrupted. But when I was reading it, it was, for the most part, quite a page-turner.
I did try to summarise the plot, but it is difficult, because a book this long has a lot of plot. Wikipedia does a good job, if you’re really interested, but I’ll just say that if you’re looking for a book which contains MMORPGS, Chinese gold farmers, Russian mafia, drug smuggling, Islamic jihadists, gun battles, British spies and so on, then this one has it all. It sits at that odd intersection of SF and mainstream fiction, where it seems to be set in the modern day, but the author is primarily a SF author and it has a SF vibe to it; I’d say it was more of a techno-thriller than SF, but it is definitely a blurred line between genres.
I have a bit of an odd history with Neal Stephenson. I read two of his earlier books, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age and really liked them; they are good, fast-paced SF books of fairly standard length. But at some point Stephenson stopped writing books like that and started to write massive books like Cryptonomicon and Anathem, which I also read and enjoyed (those links go to my reviews). However I did find that they were a bit long, a bit dragged out in places. I then read, or rather attempted to read, Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, a massive trilogy, three books each about 900 pages long, set in the late 17th century. I made a few posts about it (here they are in chronological order) and you can see that I struggled with it and ultimately gave up during the second book in the trilogy. But I knew that Stephenson had improved since then, because Anathem was written after that and is probably my favourite of his novels, so I was still looking forward to reading Reamde, albeit with some slight trepidation.
Largely I enjoyed it, and as I said before, it was quite a page-turner in places. But I did have some complaints, which are largely the same complaints that I have about other books by Stephenson. Specifically, he is incredibly long-winded. The book is far, far too long. A different author (not necessarily a better one though) could have told the same story in less than half the space. Stephenson gives you so much extra and extraneous detail though. Sometimes it is interesting stuff, but other times it is just a massive info-dump or pages full of exposition. There is a fine line between giving the required background and just going into too much detail, and I often found that Stephenson was on the wrong side of that line.
There were a few other minor criticisms that I had. For all the length of the book, I found it left a few loose ends, and after dragging out the final act for far too long, the ending, when it did come, was rather abrupt. My other gripe with it is that one of the main characters is a certain type of smug alpha geek, a type of character that has cropped up in a few books that I’ve read (I’m thinking of the awful Makers by Cory Doctorow, and also one of the characters in Cryptonomicon). That type of smarter-than-thou self satisfaction just gets on my nerves.
However, while I definitely did not think the book was without flaw, I nonetheless enjoyed reading it, and definitely got caught up in the action (although as I said, I had to read it in quite long chunks to get into the flow of it). Overall, I liked this one, I was aware of some problems, but liked it despite that. There are some really interesting ideas, neat plot twists and good characters to be found. For fans of Stephenson’s other books, it should not disappoint. However I would not recommend it as an introduction to his style or to his novels in general - for that, read Snow Crash if you want awesome (and relatively short!) cyberpunk adventure, read Cryptonomicon if you want WW2 code breaking meets internet age treasure hunting, and read Anathem if you want physicist philosopher space monks (Anathem is my favourite, make of that what you will!).