I'd heard many people talking about this book when it first came out and finally broke down at a book signing and bought it. Mostly, I'd heard that if you grew up in the 80s, you'd love it. And I have to say, that's the case.
Premise: In the near future, a gigajillionaire who built his fortune by creating a virtual reality system that's used by the entire world--a world slowly decaying because more people prefer to live online than unplugged--dies and bequeaths his entire fortune to whoever can find and defeat the three gates he's hidden inside the virtual world. Wade, a teenager, is one of those desperately searching for the gates. But it's been years and no one has even found the first one, let alone come close to finding all three. And then Wade figures out the first clue and finds the first gate ... setting of a worldwide hunt for control of everything, a hunt that turns deadly almost immediately, both for Wade and for those he finds as allies on the way.
This is a great concept for an SF novel, and tapping into the 80s nostalgia is spectacular. I have to admit that I didn't get all of the 80s references, even though I grew up during that time, but I certainly got enough of them to get thoroughly involved in the story. Wade is a character that you can sympathize with immediately and root for throughout the entire book. And the puzzles and clues are sufficiently twisted that I couldn't figure them out on my own; I had to live through the story along with Wade as he figured them out.
If the novel had been only about the puzzles and their solutions, it wouldn't have been that great, but it transcends that initial plot structure and makes the story more about the characters and, to a lesser extent, the world as it has become. You get involved in Wade's relationships with some of the others searching for the gates, and you hate the corporations attempting to find the gates for their own gain just as much as Wade does, setting up the perfect antagonist. And throughout, you get a strong glimpse of what the world is like outside the virtual reality setting. My only complaint about the novel is that, at some point, I expected the novel to somehow address the world and its problems more directly. Instead, the real world ends up being shifted off stage and is only marginally addressed as a "commentary" on our society. More could have been done here, without it shifting into railing against evils in society.
In the end, though, this was a spectacular book. A definite read for those who grew up in the 80s and enjoyed SF&F when they were younger. And if you look deep enough, there's even some commentary and warnings about society and where we might be headed.