Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Grove Press (1601)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802121225
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802121226

Muse Reviews Rating: 2 Laurels

Publisher's Description

From the author of award-winning graphic novels comes a stunning and propulsive debut novel, blending cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology.

Alif the Unseen is a masterful debut novel, an enchanting, incredibly timely adventure tale worthy of Neil Gaiman. In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker protects watched groups from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble-until he falls in love with the wrong woman and unleashes a forbidden text thought to be written by the jinn.

As the book opens, Alif 's computer has just been breached by the "Hand of God," as the hackers call the state's electronic security force, and he is scrambling to protect his clients-dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other vulnerable groups in autocratic states across the region. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and when it turns out the fiancé is the Hand, and the state security forces come after Alif with guns drawn, he must go underground, trying all the while to fight back against a piece of code he wrote to protect his lover but which the Hand is using to create the most sophisticated state surveillance the world has ever known. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days,the secret book of the jinn, has fallen into his hands and may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death.

With shades of Neal Stephenson, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One Nights, Wilson's Alif the Unseen is a tour de force that will enchant readers- a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology, and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

I received an electronic ARC of this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I requested Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson because the publisher's description made it sound like an urban fantasy novel set in the Middle East, which is a fresh take on a genre I love. And it is.


I struggled to write this review because, although there's nothing inherently wrong with this book, nevertheless, I didn't enjoy it and I can't quite place my finger on why. My dislike may have something to do with the heavy religious overtones that are at times central to the plot and at other times superfluous. To be fair, I detest religion in all its forms and, while I tried my best to set aside my aversion and enjoy Alif the Unseen on its own merits, I have no doubt my distaste colored my perception.

However, there were other aspects of the story that didn't sit well with me. For example, the character referred to only as "the convert" is a white woman from the U.S. who has converted to Islam while studying abroad. She helps Alif determine that The Thousand and One Days is genuine. She also helps him access her university's computer system so Alif can try to contact his allies and escape the Hand. But the character feels like the author's self-insertion into the story and serves no real purpose beyond acting as a repository of info to be dumped on command and a mechanism the author uses to wax philosophical and quasi-political. Her later pregnancy is little more than a deus ex machina at that point in the plot line.

The convert was not the only deus ex machina either. When Alif is captured, one of his former hacker buddies turns out to be someone with enough political clout to break him out of prison. And then there's the cat Alif let into his room to wait out a sandstorm who turns out to be a high-powered jinn and sends all the other jinn to Alif's rescue while he's battling the demons who work for the Hand.

Then there was the romantic subplot that kicks off the whole novel. Without giving too many spoilers, Alif does not get the girl. Or, rather, he gets a girl but not the one he thought he wanted. And the transition from obsessive infatuation with Intisar, the woman Alif knows is out of his league from a socio-economic standpoint, to doting, transcendent love of Dina, the literal girl next door whom he initially brushed off as ignorant and prudish, was jarring and made no sense. I'm all for character development, but there was no reason for this particular development other than Alif realizing he'd been acting a fool while Dina took care of his selfish backside.

Alif the Unseen might work for someone who is either more forgiving of heavy religious overtones in fiction or for someone who just wants a bit of an adventure and doesn't care about plot holes. Unfortunately, I am neither so I can only give this book two laurels. My advice is to wait until Alif the Unseen comes to a library near you and borrow it. If you like it and want to buy a copy, great. If not, you'll only have spent a couple of hours of your life on this book.

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