Author: G. Willow Wilson
Publication Date: 7/3/12
Publisher: Grove Press
Blurb(GR): 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 fiance 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, and "The 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.
Just when I think that young adult fantasy has nothing new to show me, this one comes along to change my mind. Granted, this is being marketed as an adult novel, but I would disagree with that classification. If anything, this is more of a hybrid. The main character is an early twenties hacker/activist (“hacktivist”) who’s living at home and dealing with his over-attentive mom, the annoyingly devout girl next door, first heartbreak, and an all-powerful instrument of the state who wants nothing more than to track him down, throw him in a dank cell, and starve him to death. You know – normal stuff. Things get even more complicated when a dangerously powerful book of fairy tales finds its way into his hands and he has to seek refuge in the realm of the unseen.
I’ve honestly never read anything like this before. It is a Middle East inspired fantasy novel about hackers, djinns, metaphor, faith, and political uprising. And for a fantasy novel, it is more firmly rooted in reality than most. Published in the wake of The Arab Spring, this novel feels incredibly relevant. And what’s more – it feels necessary. This is the kind of book that I think the world needs right now. Here is a recent quote from author G. Willow Wilson (from an interview with Shelf Awareness):
“I spent a long time being frustrated that there wasn't much awareness or interest in Arab youth culture here in the U.S. People wanted to hear about fundamentalism and veiling and terrorism, but not about what the next generation was thinking or doing.”
Honestly, I’m guilty of this. While I saw occasional news coverage of the riots and revolutions, I was largely ignorant of what was going on. And I have to admit that I have little to no knowledge of Islam or the Quran. However, one of the many reasons that I love to read is to experience new places and new cultures. On that score, this book is utterly fascinating. And much to her credit, G. Willow Wilson never oversimplifies or whitewashes the culture and religious practices and never slows down to explain anything to a hypothetical Western audience. It’s occasionally confusing, but she really earned my respect by doing it that way. I don’t need to have every little thing explained to me – it’s so much more immersive if I’m left to figure it out on my own.
G. Willow Wilson also really succeeds in rendering this world – an unnamed state somewhere in the Middle East – with the perfect balance of honesty and lack of pity. She doesn’t shy away from the hard truths here: censorship, sexism, racism, government brutality; but neither does she color them with any kind of Western superiority. These things exist, but they are simple facts of life. They are horrifying, and yet these characters deal with them every day. They are acknowledged in the way we might acknowledge our healthcare system or the frequently challenged (and disappearing) reproductive rights of our women (both of which I am sure frequently cause us to be pitied). They are never traded upon for melodrama.
And on top of all of that, this is a beautifully written fantasy story. It is a fun, fast-paced adventure that moves in-between worlds, including the virtual world of technology, the world of fairy tales, and an unseen realm populated by djinn, effrits, and madrins. The characters are in turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.
However, there are a few places where the fast-paced feeling of this book starts to lag. Several scenes where the characters take time out from the story to have philosophical discussions about religion or the state of the world are very interesting from an educational standpoint, but do nothing to move the story forward. Additionally, the characters take such defined roles during these discussions (the convert, the devout follower, the religious leader, the devil’s advocate) that they stop feeling like characters and start feeling like mouthpieces for various issues. However, the ending of this book is just complete perfection and I must say that it really tied together a lot of these discussion points from the lagging places. Even though the story lagged, I was still riveted by the “new to me” feeling of the topics discussed. And her writing is just so beautiful; it's hard to lose too much patience. Here is one of my favorite passages:
"I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word of God."
Overall I highly recommend this to young adult and adult readers alike, especially to those who are tired of reading the “same old, same old” in fantasy.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Omar Offendum: #Jan25 Egypt (feat. The Narcicyst, Freeway, Ayah, and Amir Sulaiman)