About the Book
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, andThe Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.
I have to admit that there is one trope that I am so incredibly sick of that I almost completely veer away from those books because they just make me mad for even existing. So what is it? I’m sick of the thickly accented dark person from (insert foreign country here) who is terribly evil and trying to destroy the whole planet. These people usually have big beards and dark brown or black hair. They sit in tea/coffee shops all day and laugh with evil intent while they plot, plot, plot. It just bothers me. Why, for the love of (insert holy thing here) can’t the ultimate evil guy be pale and talk the same way I do for once? This bugs me so deeply that I can’t even handle movies where the evil dude is a (clichéd) Russian mobster or the terrorist from the Middle East. Come on. It’s been done. Move on.
With that little rant out of the way, perhaps you can understand why I hesitantly approached Alif the Unseen. My automatic thought was, “Fantastic, another evil Middle Eastern dude. Wonderful. Just what the world needs. Lets trope up an already ravaged part of the world.” Well, then I got the book, and I read a bit about Wilson, and my interest was peaked. It took me an entire page to realize that all of my ranting and my predisposition toward hating the trope of the evil thickly accented guy was completely, absolutely, and totally misplaced.
Alif the Unseen is nothing that I expected, unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and because of that, I loved it.
Alif the Unseen is a fascinating hodgepodge of urban fantasy, cyberpunk, Middle Eastern mythology, and some thriller thrown in for good measure. To put the cherry on top of this sundae, Alif is a true antihero (and I’m a sucker for the antihero). He is a young man of mixed Indian and Arab descent, living in a Middle Eastern police state. He spends his days (and nights) protecting whoever pays him from the State’s cyber eye. He doesn’t care who they are or what they do, if they pay him enough money, he’ll protect their online identities from the state and therefore keep them from getting arrested. He’s out for himself. He enjoys the money he makes from hacking, but it’s the tangoing with danger and the coding that really seems to get him off. Alif is a captivating character. He thinks about little outside of his own comfort. Once his lover jilts him, his world is turned upside down. The state finds out who he is, and he is forced on the run with his innocent neighbor.
Wilson does a great job at showing just how ignorant and unprepared Alif is, despite how dangerous he knows his job could be. Once he’s out of his house and on the run with people depending on him, Wilson shows how Alif crumbles under pressure. This isn’t just any antihero, this is your everyday teenager, in it for himself with little thought to the future. When Alif hits the road, Wilson showcases Alif’s personal flaws quite believably. The fact that, in many situations, Alif’s companions appear stronger and often smarter than he is, is a fascinating twist on the average antihero character. Wilson truly created a believable, sympathetic protagonist in Alif.
That being said, Alif the Unseen takes place in a Middle Eastern police state, something myself, and most of my readers probably don’t understand or truly comprehend. The cultural divide is real, and it is acutely felt. This can cause the reader to feel a bit divorced from the characters and events. It’s hard to fully relate to someone and someplace you don’t understand and haven’t ever come even close to experiencing. However, that’s part of the magic. Alif the Unseen is, in many ways, a crash course on Arab culture. There are so many tiny cultural details sprinkled throughout the book, it’ll be impossible not to see this culture in a new, thoughtful light. For example, there is one part toward the start of the book where Alif is discussing his first meeting with his lover. He talks about how he envied her her veil because he was exposed and nervous and she got to watch him, unseen, behind her protective fabric. That’s a perspective that, here in the West, we so rarely hear. I should also note that Wilson mentions that the Arab Spring has influenced this book, and the tense political tones, police state, and many of the happenings in Alif the Unseen reflect that. Wilson really brings the chaos to light in a way that the Western person can understand, and their immersion in the events in the book will truly help most readers sympathize in ways they probably couldn’t have before.
The Jinn are well done and when coupled with the exotic location and the foreign culture, they seem to fit perfectly. Vikram adds a nice humor and a dark, sarcastic bite that is necessary for the tone of Alif the Unseen. Furthermore, the use of Jinn, a surprisingly ancient mythological caricature, juxtaposed with modern, and supermodern technology is nothing short of genius. Alif the Unseen is not only an education in Middle Eastern culture and belief, but it’s also an elegant clash of ancient and modern. Seeing how the two live together, the myths staying true to their ancient forms, while technology alters the face of the world, is fascinating.
The plot is absorbing, engaging and moves at a fast pace. It also has plenty of unpredictable twists and turns that will keep the tension ramped up and readers endlessly guessing. If the plot doesn’t engage you, the atmosphere, culture, and characters surely will. No matter why you pick up Alif the Unseen, you will almost surely find yourself devouring it surprisingly fast. Toward the end, the events build up to a nice crescendo. However, once that crescendo peaks, the ending happens rather abruptly. Events all become sorted out, but the somewhat jarring end, after being so deeply absorbed in the book, the sudden ending felt almost like I was getting whiplash. One minute I was in some exotic land that I couldn’t get enough of, and the next thing I knew, it was over. The truth is, I didn’t want it to end, so no matter how Wilson had ended the book, it would have bothered me. There are a precious few books that affect me that way.
Alif the Unseen is one of those books I could go on for days about. It’s so incredibly engaging, thought provoking, deliciously foreign, believable, strange, intense, emotional, painful… I’m not sure how many other words I need to throw out there to properly convey how intensely I loved this book. Wilson does urban fantasy right. Authors take note. G. Willow Wilson is someone you need to watch. Alif the Unseen is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
Alif the Unseen is nominated for the World Fantasy Award and it’s a well deserved nomination. Congratulations to G. Willow Wilson for getting the deserved recognition that she deserves for this incredible book.