Matt Ruff is one of science fiction and fantasy's most consistently brilliant and innovative authors, whose recent work includes The Mirage (an incredible alternate history in which the Global War on Terror is kicked off when Christian crusaders from the blighted, tribal USA fly a plane into the United States of Arabia's Twin Towers in Dubai, giving the hawkish CIA chief Osama bin Laden the chance to launch the all-out war he's been champing for), and Lovecraft Country (an anti-racist reimagining of Cthulhu set in Jim Crow America where the real horror is white supremacy -- now being adapted for TV by Jordan Peele). In his new novel, 88 Names, Ruff adds to the canon of MMORPG heist novels (Charlie Stross's Rule 34, Neal Stephenson's Reamde, and my For the Win, to name three) with a unique take that he dubbed "Snow Crash meets The King and I."

John Chu is a third-generation gold farmer whose sherpa guild — which squires wealthy, incompetent players around VR games for a price, dodging EULA enforcers — has gone viral after being namechecked by an actor whom they helped prepare for a major role.

But Chu's guild's golden hour is cut short when Chu's ex-girlfriend, Darla, swears revenge on them after a bad breakup, and begins to sabotage their play. Just as things are looking their worst, Chu is recruited by a mysterious stranger who offers him an off-the-charts weekly retainer to train him in the mysterious arts of the MMO — and right after, Chu is solicited by another mysterious someone who offers him twice as much to help them keep tabs on his mysterious new client.

As Chu gets deeper into the mystery of his new client and his second, clandestine client, he realizes that he's been recruited by someone high up in the ruling structure of North Korea, maybe one of the Kim family, to help with some kind of plan — a circumstance that seems to be validated by Chu's mother, who is a top signals intelligence spook with a futuristic US government electronic security agency.

The caper moves seamlessly through a series of beautifully rendered, imaginative virtual worlds, and a physical world that is recognizably our own future, while still being madcap in that unmistakably mattruffian way. There's plenty of cyberpunk electronic skullduggery, snarky commentary on contemporary game design, and rumination on the fluidity of identity in an increasingly online world.

It's a superb, Matt Ruff kind of novel. I played a very tiny role in helping Matt with some research, which was quite an honor — doubly so once I read the book and realized just how fabulous it came out.

88 Names [Matt Ruff/Harpercollins]