Neal Stephenson, 2011
Premise: Richard Forthrast used to be a drug smuggler, but these days, he's made his fortune in video games. At a family reunion, he decides to give his intelligent adoptive niece Zula a job in his company. Zula's boyfriend Peter gets involved with some serious identity theft, when his work is infected with a virus related to the MMORPG Zula works on. That's how the Russian mob gets involved. Communities of Chinese gold farmers, international terrorists and British spies all get involved later, as events spin further and further out of control, until Zula, Richard, their family and their new friends must face danger and death to try to save each other.
It has far fewer info-dumping digressions than most of Stephenson's work, and in my opinion this is a good thing. (Not that I don't enjoy many of his infodumps, but I recognize that reading them can get exhausting.) It doesn't mean that this book is less intelligent, or less interesting, just that it is a little less work to read it.
I found all of the characters interesting and unique. In general I think this falls on the action movie scale: the main characters -both protagonists and antagonists, of all races and nationalities- are all intriguing and layered, so if the evil lackeys are a bit one-note, I'm not going to stress out about it.
Did I mention there are tons of main characters? There's a reason this book is over a thousand pages long; the twists and cliffhangers follow each person as groups of characters travel, splinter, re-group, etc. Zula is brave and pragmatic and amazing, of course, but Yuxia has such fierceness and heart, Csongor brims with both practicality and poetry, and the young hacker Marlon stands by his friends – old and new and questionably legal – with remarkable tenacity. I could go on, Solokov the Russian Special Ops who is smarter than he lets on, Jones the frighteningly charismatic terrorist leader... New major characters keep getting introduced until quite late into the book. I didn't even mention the extended Forthrast clan who play a large part, or the extraordinary folks who work with Richard on T'Rain, their multi-million dollar MMORPG.
My only criticism is that some of the inter-character romantic plots got a bit silly for me. Overall I liked them, but I got a bit tired of romance in the middle when I wasn't sure where some of the subplots were going. Not that there is much time for romance when everyone is flying at breakneck pace from action scene to action scene. Except when the action scenes are flashbacks about starting a tech company. The parallels amuse me, and the contrasts keep things zipping along. Well, the ending was a smidge weak, but whatever.
I'm not saying this is the best book ever written. I'm saying that I loved reading it, that reading it was a great experience. Sometimes, that's plenty.
5 Stars – An Awesome Book