This is Neal Stephenson light. Very very light. I was somewhat skeptical about this book, but it failed to meet what were low expectations of it.
The plot is a cross between Brewster's Millions and the Matrix, which makes it sound better than it is. The book constantly references Nerd Culture from the 80s. I thought that it might have a certain charm when the main character ends up playing Joust against a Lich (should be a demi-lich) in the old D&D module - Tomb of Horrors. But that is really the high point. It just tags pop culture reference after pop culture reference. Also Cline does not really have that good taste - we see some awesome things like Blade Runner and Mecha Godzilla, but there is a huge amount relating to War Games which is a so-so movie at best. Cline is the kind of person that recognizes the original Star Wars trilogy as better than the prequels, but can't seem to gather that the prequels are a big pile of poo.
Most importantly the plot here is utterly lame. The writing is work-a-day competent, inoffensive writing. The characters are a big problem. They are nerds of the highest order, and Cline almost interprets there extreme social awkwardness as a form of heroism. Diaz in Oscar Wao dealt with a similar character, and I think that he was too soft on that character, but the level of insight he had was far higher than here. The main characters all really need extensive therapy, and Cline so strongly identifies with them that he can't see this. Some of it is just embarrassing, like when the main character finds himself inside Monty Python and the Holy Grail and proceeds to win a challenge by quoting all the lines. It reminds me of the very earliest and worst D&D novels and it reads like it was written by someone in high school.
The book also is fundamentally a celebration of escaping into a fantasy world, without really seeing anything problematic in that. Its emotionally stunted. At one point it defends masturbation, and I wonder what age group it is aimed at. I would have thought that this was writing for 13 year-olds but the pop-culture references are for people in their forties.
Its the novel equivalent of the card game Munchkin. Munchkin is a popular hobby game, that has all sorts of inside geek references that have given it popularity, but it is actually a terrible game. Ready Player One is the exact same thing and it is actually a terrible novel. I'm stopping myself from giving it one star, because there are a few bits that work.