Neal Stephenson is famous for not ending his novels. Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Anathem —each convulses at its finish, expanding the boundaries of the story to the point where a real conclusion is not only impossible but unimaginable. Zodiac and Snow Crash, with their more traditional structures and conclusions, are earlier works, composed without the same restless ambition. Which marks Reamde, Stephenson's newest foray into grafting Sci-Fi style and mechanisms onto seemingly disparate genre, as distinctly odd, for it both lacks the relentless mindfuckery and insatiable playfulness of Stephenson's signature style and features a genuine, honest-to-goodness ending.
If the swap is not for the best, that is not to say the result is unambitious. Weighing in at 981 pages, Reamde is an international thriller in the style of Tom Clancy, if Clancy were both interested in people and not insane. The novel begins as an exegesis of a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) known as T'Rain, the name of which is a corruption of “terrain,” which is apt, since its major differentiation from T'Rain's forebear/main competitor World of Warcraft is the obsessive attention paid to the geology and topography of the world, down to magma movements. T'Rain is the dissemination point for the corrupted titular file, the quite possibly deliberately misspelled REAMDE, which moves from game to users' computers and encrypts all their files; to unencrypt the files, players must travel to a pre-ordained place in T'Rain with a thousand gold pieces. To discuss the plot from here on out would be sheer folly, but suffice to say during the novel's first movement, a certain rogue segment of the Russian mafia finds a very good reason to hunt down and kill the progenitors of REAMDE, who end up being a bunch of kids based in Xiamen, China.
The actions of the Chinese kids end up having massive impact upon both the economic and narrative evolution of T'Rain; this, in itself, is utterly fascinating, as we get to watch how an owned yet unpoliced world changes under unforeseen stimuli. However, this is mere background to Reamde's real story: the run-in, occurring due to highly unlikely coincidence, between said rogue element of the Russian mafia and a cell of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.
Along the way, our protagonists become inextricably involved; they are too manifold to mention, as are their nationalities and ethnicities, but they are united in their engineer-savant status. (Stephenson has always loved characters who can do things.) There are a multitude of shoot-outs, kidnappings, escapes, aborted escapes, mad dashes across borders, murders, and commissions of rampant property destruction. The writing is tightly controlled, perhaps more so than in any of Stephenson's previous ventures, and the pace propulsive. Stephenson's trademark infodumps are less present than usual, though his wry humor is in abundance. But when the action ends and the final line of dialogue feels self-congratulatory, straight out of an 80s action movie, the reader is left entertained and exhausted, not challenged into a state of wonder.