I was surprised to discover that this book is partly apocalyptic! It's set in a dystopian world after bombs have fallen and overpopulation boomed. That warmed me to it a bit, but overall, my main complaint with the novel is that it really, really feels like a debut novel. The main character is a bit too
proficient at everything. In fact, he rarely fails at anything he tries. For instance, he hacks and
physically sneaks into the enemy's stronghold and out again, no problemo.
I was glad that some of the main characters are females, because otherwise this book is heavily
male dominated. Some of that is, perhaps, a product of who Halliday was. But when the author info dumps every. single. author. movie. video game. AND hobby the guy ever had (all in the first 15% of the novel), they're all dudes. When we find out who the geeks vote in every year as their representatives in government, they're dudes. When any creator of anything at all is mentioned, it's a dude.
Interestingly, there is a slight awareness of this toward the end, when a character mentions that the OASIS is the best thing that ever happened to minorities, because now everyone can pretend to be a white male, yay! So take from that what you will. The main characters are a diverse crew.
There also seemed to be some random plot holes, or at least spots where it wasn't clear to me when his friends had gotten the keys already. I thought they were ahead of him toward the middle of the game, but yet there's a point where he sends them all the info he has on the middle key and middle gate. Very confusing. Also confusing as to whether he has his ship shrunken in his pocket or not at one point.
As for the geek factor...
the sheer volume of infodumps really killed my enthusiasm for the geekspolsion going on in the early part of the book. I had very little reason to keep picking it back up other than the hype I'd heard both online and from friends.
In many cases, the geeky references only tangentially touched on my own fandoms. The SFF authors and books mentioned were familiar, but those were really just part of an infodump, not integral to the plot. There are a few mentions of Firefly (Kaylee is the name of a ship until—surprise—the main character renames the ship with a dude name), World of Warcraft, etc. but not many other modern video games. (Had the protagonist been inside of Mario Bros, Age of Empires, or Civilization, I would've been all about it!)
For the most part, the book heavily focuses on 80s geekery, so all the references to the clues and puzzles of the games the main character has to fight his way through were lost on me... I vaguely remember watching WarGames. Never heard of Zork or Tempest. Never watched School House Rock.
I would have trouble recommending this book to anyone not steeped in 80s geekery.
The ending redeemed much of the meandering plot for me. Though I still think Shoto should've been the one who got to kick the Big Bad Guy's ass.
Overall, it's a fun ride if you can get through the first fifth!