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 fianceé 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.
Alif is the name for a young Arab-Indian hacker who generally spends his days protecting his clients from surveillance and censoring. Alif has also fallen in love with young aristocratic woman. Suddenly things fall apart for Alif; his lover spurns him and the State agency known as the Hand infiltrates his system. Alif ends up on the run. He meets with his lover one last time and she gives his a strange book. Who knew that Djinn really existed? Alif is forced to flee through both our world and a magical one as he tries to stop the Hand from destroying both his work and that of his friends.
This book reminds a lot of previous books you might have read; but is a unique combination of all of these books. There is a bit of Gaiman’s Neverwhere in here in how the city of the djinn is hidden within Alif’s city, there are also the quirky characters and flight from unknown evil. There is a bit of Stephenson’s Snow Crash in here as well, which shows in the hacking sequences and in the rebellion towards the government. This story is part mythology, part cyberpunk, and part political statement all set in the Middle East.
That being said it was different than anything I have ever read before. It gave some interesting incite into Middle Eastern politics and culture. At the same time it also references some unique mythology from that region. This is not a book you read quickly, this is a book that you need to think through...at times it gets a bit dense.
This is a creative story, as I said I’ve never read anything like this before. The characters are all pretty good and interesting; although this is more a plot driven story than a character driven one. I don’t know a ton about the Middle East and it was incredibly interesting how the culture was blended in to the rest of the story. Practical issues, like how women eat around their veils, were mentioned in the telling; there are just a lot of interesting cultural things that I never really considered before.
Additionally this story bluntly discusses a lot of other issues in the Middle East region; repression, sexism, censorship, corruption, and separation of social casts. This ended up making the story somewhat educational, despite the fact it is a fantasy.
This is also a wonderful fantasy/urban fantasy. Alif walks in and out of the world of the djinn; it is an interesting concept and an unique world. I love how Alif discovers a new way to program that he believes he has learned from the djinn’s book of stories.
My only complaints would be at times the book is a bit dense and towards the middle-end of the book I thought the pacing was a bit slow. Also, although the characters are fairly well done, they weren’t characters that totally engaged me and pulled me into the story. They were interesting, but I never really cared a lot about them.
Overall an excellent urban fantasy/cyberpunk/political story. This book is unlike anything I have ever read before. I loved how Middle Eastern culture was blended into this fantasy and how we get to see some scenes of every day life. I loved even more that the mythology of this region was highly incorporated into this story. Then of course there were the glorious hacker scenes; where it is code against code to see who saves the world. My only complaints are that the story is dense (which makes it a slow read at times) and the characters were decent, yet not highly compelling. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy/cyberpunk or for those who are just interesting in Middle Eastern culture.
Government censors are closing in, and Alif must flee before state security traps him; childhood pal Dina jumps in to help. On the face of it, this could be any old escape story, but it takes a thrilling turn for the weird when escape comes courtesy of a jinn, leading into a parallel world of Arab myth and fiction. On the way, Alif confronts faith, sacrifice, and love, coming to terms with it all.
I loved the detail of modern Arab life, the customs, the interplay between the different classes of inhabitants, the little quips, asides, and aphorisms from the Qur'an that the faithful and questioning share at the core of their daily life. It left me hoping for more from Ms. Wilson. Too few of us in the West know what life is like in Arabia; Ms. Wilson has drawn the veil (pun intended) back a bit, with great storytelling skill, good humor and a light touch.
The quotes on the back cover of this book comparing it to Gaiman and Harry Potter do not do it justice. Yes, it's in the same genre, but I have never read an urban fantasy that's ensconced in middle eastern culture before, and (with my very limited knowledge of that culture), she does a fantastic job.
I hope Wilson writes many more adult novels, because she's a good feminist, she writes interesting characters (I especially love Dina), and she explores middle eastern culture in such a compelling way.
Any book written by a Westerner, that attempts to see modern, Islamic culture from within, falls automatically under the suspicion of committing orientalism. Author Wilson avoids the problem to a fair degree - Alif and the other characters are convincingly modern people, not robed exotics. In particular, Alif possesses a degree of sexual sophistication that seems credible in a young man, living in a society where women are often veiled and always restricted, but where the educated have access to global media. The politics of relations between the ruling Arabs and their guest workers from the Indian subcontinent are explored through the lens of Alif's dual heritage. Herself a convert to Islam, Wilson owns up to her outsider status by putting a version of herself in the story - "the convert", a Western woman who participates in Alif's story, sometimes as a figure of fun, sometimes as a useful ally and important mover in the plot.
Finally, however, while this book is not really fantasy from a non-Westerm, Islamic point of view, it is fast-paced, interestingly different, and worth reading on its own terms.
Original,intriguing and clever, Alif The Unseen is a surprising and entertaining adventure. Set in a small Arab country under tight government control it also has real life parallels with the protests against digital censorship, amongst other things, leading to the 'Arab Spring' in 2010. Into a tale of modern day oppression, censorship and revolution, Wilson weaves the myths and legends of the Persian Gulf, jinn, genies, devils, shadows and the centuries old fables within the Book of One Thousand and One Days (as opposed to Nights). That such disparate elements mesh so seamlessly is to the author's credit and though the plot is complex at times, its depth keeps the readers interest even when the storytelling lags briefly.
I enjoyed the 'supernatural' element to this novel, Jinns of questionable intent, monsters that lurk in the dark of the Unseen, even Aladin's genie makes an unexpected appearance. I admit some of the computer jargon went entirely over my head and I have no idea if any of what Alif achieved is, or ever will, be possible but it's an intriguing idea. Alif gives technology - code - it's own magic, it's own life in fact.
I grew to like Alif, who initially seems little more than a spoilt, disaffected youth but fumbles his way through adversity with surprising determination and demonstrates loyalty, wit and genius. Dina, Alif's veiled childhood friend is smart, brave and has some great lines. Vikram is both a saviour and the devil's advocate, the Sheikh lends the story his wisdom and dignity.
Equally likely to be enjoyed by a mature teen and adult audience, Alif the Unseen is well crafted, with a unique voice and a fresh story to tell. I'm surprised to be considering it as one of my favourite reads for 2012.
Do not think that you will get an easy lesson in the realities of the “Arab Spring” though Wilson has some things to say about that.
There’s nothing wrong with being a genre fantasy novel – and an enjoyable one for about two-thirds of it.
But Wilson also wants this to be something else, a platform for some serious observations on Islam and freedom. It is not an unthinking novel. But it is a fantasy, I maintain, of hope over reality and experience. I suspect Wilson might agree with that but value that hope more than me.
For those looking for Arab tinged fantasy and science fiction, I think you will find it here. The metaphorical correlations between jinn legend, Islamic theology, and information theory as manifested in computer coding does, indeed, remind one of Neal Stephenson. The jinns are the most interesting characters here, particularly one Vikram the Vampire, a fearsome, cunning, sometimes noble member of the race that aids Alif. And Wilson doesn’t make you wait for them either. They and the Alif Yeom, a mystical book of the stories jinns tell about themselves, are introduced in the first chapter. The book this most strongly reminded me of, though it came from a different religious perspective, was Tim Powers’ Declare. Both take their religious contexts seriously and weave esoteric bits of legend into their stories.
I gather, from the publicity materials that came with my review copy, that Wilson is a convert to Islam. And that does lend some real world interest to the story. Whatever I may think of Islam’s attitude toward veiling women, Alif’s neighbor, the young woman Dina – the novel’s most spiritually centered character, gives some understanding why a woman would voluntarily do so with, in this case, no compulsion. Another woman, an American studying in the unnamed emirate which is the novel’s setting, talks of the difficulty of being accepted by the tribalistic Arabs – even after she sort of learns their language and adopts their religion. And Sheikh Bilal, mullah of a mosque, is a fairly sympathetic character even to infidel eyes – though he is spiritually chastened and corrected by some of his experiences.
So, there are some things of value.
But I had problems and, be warned, spoilers follow. And I’m doing this because I don’t think Wilson has written a mindless book, just one whose ultimate optimism I disagree with but find thoughtful.
On the level of fiction, the story lost a lot of interest after Alif is busted out of jail by NewQuarter. Only a hacker handle to Alif before, he is revealed as a minor scion of the family ruling the emirate. Fair enough, that wasn’t too predictable. However, the pregnancy of the American convert was as was the revelation of Dina’s love for Alif. The final confrontation between the Hand, the sinister head of the emirate’s cybersecurity and villain of the nove,l and Alif is a replay of many a computer hacker/punk rocker/young rebel-fights-the-future plot: everything hinges on a small scale fight. Tyranny in these stories is a weak center, freedom a wide, dispersed power. And Wilson’s story is, I believe, sincerely wedded to that notion, and , for her, it’s not a convenient plot resolution. It’s an intended truism.
While I disagree with his methods and morals, I’m afraid that I’m largely in agreement with the observations of the Hand. The feminists, Islamists, Communists, and others will be at each other’s throat shortly after the end of the story. The mob is already sinister when it hangs the Hand – after trying to hang its ally NewQuarter. It is only the convenience of Wilson’s story that justice come from bloody, mindless violence.
And it is that self-awareness of hope, of a desire of how things should work out and not how they probably will, I sense. Wilson knows the danger but opts for the happy end.
And I sense this in the theological arguments and speculations about Islam that almost all the characters engage in. Wilson doesn’t seem to side with many of the “radical Islam” tenets. But, while I wouldn’t mind a world where Wilson’s version of the faith was the majority, I don’t see it happening. “Radicals” are in the mainstream. As I write this, sharia law encroaches in England and inhibits police investigations of sexual predation. Ataturk’s reforms are being turned back in Turkey. Death sentences are passed out on cartoonists . And, near where I live, the blind were once told to leave their seeing eye dogs out of cabs driven by Muslims.
Everywhere man is born in chains but yeans to be free. But, I sense in the part of this world this novel is set in, what is sought is freedom to enslave some of your neighbors in in a world sprawling theocracy.
I felt, though, that Alif's coding was too magical--not in a fantasy way, but in a handwave-y way.
Inspired by the Arab Spring and "The Thousand and One Nights", "Alif the Unseen" hurtles the hero into hacking, digital mischief, street fights, assassinations, and the world of the Jinn, the Unseen. At moments funny, the book builds from a quiet, humdrum beginning to a heart-stopping conclusion.
After a slow start, the book builds momentum as the hacker hero has to go on the run from State Security. With him is the neighbor girl, who did him a small favor and then gets dragged into his mess. At his side is also a Jinn, Vikram, a shape shifter of dubious loyalty.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Stick with it for a wonderful adventure in modern technology and Arabian folklore.
The views on spirituality and politics are especially refreshing. She doesn't give us simplified versions of these two things, but messy, bloody, complex and risky versions. It is clear to me that Wilson loves humanity and loves her characters because she allows them to be flawed without endorsing the flaws. (Again, this breaks down in the character Dina, who was almost a great character. I loved the risks the author took in making the heroine a conservative-by-choice Islamic woman, who veils herself by choice, but in the end Dina was too didactic and perfect and not human enough.) Wilson's spirituality and politics are realistic and not idealized and by themselves they would make the novel worth reading, but there are other things even more appealing in her work.
Wilson deftly weaves together threads from the 1001 nights and information technology to put our world into both a new and a familiar context. Sure, some IT details are glossed over, but she knows her stuff and includes enough realism to engage nerds in the tale. The Jinn and the half-world are used to make a point, not just to add spice to the story. Many other authors who try to mix magic and technology should read Wilson and learn from her style.
There are a lot of places this novel could have gone wrong. Wilson took some huge risks, but she clearly has the chops as a writer, a thinker, and a religious person to pull it all off. I look forward to reading more of her work.
**After thinking about the book a few days after finishing it, I'm disappointed about how it referred to homosexuality. Male characters referred to each other insultingly as "ass coveter" but I can't recall any gay or bi characters portrayed in a sympathetic light. It is an excellent book, but this lack bears comment.**
The first 90% of this book is great. Fast paced, with believable characters and innovative and evocative descriptions. But. The last section of the book feels untrue and unearned, as the protagonists
Computers and the internet are huge factors in our modern world, but the idea of the computer and the internet playing a key role in the fantasy aspect of book is virtually untouched in fantasy and urban fantasy books. Some have touched on it tangentially, for example the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant where the characters are bloggers. But what I mean, is that where the computer and the internet are components of the world building or perhaps characters on their own — Ready Player One of course comes to mind as an example of this. Ms. Wilson’s book takes the computer and internet world and fashions it into part of the world building in her fantasy setting.
Alif the Unseen is an adventure and self-discovery tale, as so many fantasy stories are. It is set in a modern world, where computers, the internet and cell phones play a part. But woven in to the tale, are elements of arabic mythology of jinn, shape shifters, demons, vampires, and alternate worlds that exist just on the other side of the air we breathe.
The richness of Alif the Unseen is in the descriptions of clothes, food and social interactions. Social mores and customs are mentioned, but not overtly criticized it is just a matter of fact expression of how life is. Underlying the story is a very subtle criticism of racism, xenophobia, classism, monarchies, powerful and censoring governments, religious judgment and condemnation, and gender discrimination. Ms. Wilson, though, doesn’t present these criticisms as a polemic but more as characters reacting to situations and unfairnesses that they experience. And remember, the readers are there not as Western tourists, but as a local who lives there and is an active participant in the culture. Faith and belief are a key part of this story. The characters are believers and their faith gives them strength and courage. I do admit that expressions of faith make me uncomfortable, but in the end Alif the Unseen is not preaching but expressing.
For awhile now, I have been interested in the push of ideas and the gentle rub of potential change in the Middle East driven by young people, Alif the Unseen touches on this very interesting topic — a subtle revolution and resistance taking place on the internet. If you crave romance, there is a very sweet romance and references to sexuality while not overt they are obvious. Alif the Unseen is not perfect, but few books are. There are slow parts to this book, parts that I wish were edited out. But overall it is a great read and I highly recommend it.I recommend Alif the Unseen to anyone who enjoys fantasy, urban fantasy, computer based adventure, fairy tales and/or stories about young people trying to make things better.
The writing is fantastic, it read in a few days hooked on very large doses the kind you stay in for like Sebastian lol
Alif is a very flawed character, he does so little right, and when he does it’s usually because of a secondary character telling him to do something else, and I liked this. It was nice to have an idiot at the helm, and this was done skilfully, I never once found myself screaming at the book that he was doing it wrong, except on one occasion, when actually he was doing it right!
Overall, a brilliant read that I am happy to recommend to my friends.
I read Willow Wilson's memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, earlier this year, and enjoyed her writing enough to look up what else she's written. This is her debut, and it's an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy, modern technology and legends of jinn. I had a hard time getting into it at first, probably because I was reading in bits and pieces instead of sitting down for a chunk of time to really let the story unfold for me. Once I did that, I turned pages fast. Alif is a conflicted sort of guy, and I didn't like him at first. The swearing made me cringe at times. Deep thoughts are inserted somewhat clunkily into a generally fast-paced story, but the characters' philosophizing give compelling food for thought about story and literature, fiction and life.
Overall, I enjoyed the Alif protagonist, although I would have preferred more realism in his computer exploits. It may be my own bias, but I get the feeling that Stross, or Neal Stephenson, or Cory Doctorow, have actually done their share of command-line work. Wilson's descriptions seem more removed. The Djinn mythology is more fleshed out, which is good; but again I think Powers' is more in-depth.
I have no idea how to write a review or describe this book. It took me a little to get into it. I started it in March and sat it aside, but I never moved it from my nightstand because the description definitely captured my attention. So I picked it back up over the weekend. I'm glad I did. After refreshing my memory of the first 30 or so pages, I dived right in and there the adventure started. It's like a mix of Aladdin (Arabian Days instead of Nights here), Wizard of Oz (the film -- I've never read the book), and Ready Player One (geekery fun). I even learned a little! I mean, let's be real, I only know what I see on TV about the Middle East, Islam, Muslim & Arab cultures. (I really should do more research.) Very interesting read.