Monday, January 2, 2023

Alif the Unseen

G. Willow Wilson
Completed 12/31/2022, Reviewed 12/31/2022
4 stars

This is a great cyberpunk fantasy taking place in a fictional Arab country just before the Arab Spring uprising begins.  Despite being in the computer biz, I don’t always care for cyberpunk, but I really enjoyed this one.  I think it’s because of the setting, the Arab world. I do like jinn stories and this one has many different types showing up throughout the book.  I think it also grabbed me because it immerses the reader in modern Arab culture and shows the clashes between the old and the new, not much unlike Black Water Sister, which I read just a few days before this.  It was received pretty well, winning the 2013 World Fantasy Award and garnering a few other nominations. 

Alif is the handle for a gifted hacker who provides a forum for anyone against the oppressive state.  He loves a girl of a much higher class than he.  When he finds out she has been betrothed to marry the sleazy State security head, commonly known as “The Hand”, he also finds out The Hand is after him for his support of anti-government voices.  The girl gives him a book which turns out to be a very rare book, similar to Tales of 1001 Nights, but supposedly written by a jinn.  Alif runs for his life, with the book and with his neighbor Dina.  They seek the help and protection of Vikram the Vampire, a gangster, who turns out to be a jinn.  Together they try to evade and bring down The Hand just as the Arab Spring erupts in their country.  

I really liked Alif.  It was easy to identify and empathize with him.  He’s extremely gifted as a coder, but of course, lacking in some common sense.  He’s also not perfect.  He’s moody and emotional and sometimes doesn’t see what’s right under his nose.  Dina is also great as his more conservative neighbor.  They grew up together, but now is less approachable as she has taken up the full veiled covering.  Another great character is a Sheik who preaches at a local mosque.  He gets dragged into Alif’s drama when he and the others come to hide there.  He’s conservative as well, but open to scholarly discussions.  He makes some surprising choices at the book approaches its climax.  And Vikram and the other jinn are just plain cool.  

The world building is pretty cool, with excellent details of the different types of jinn and their hidden city.  The prose is just right, not being overly flowery.  It has just about the right balance of description and dialogue.  There were times when I though we spent too much time in Alif’s head, particularly after he is incarcerated in a lightless prison cell.  While in prison, yes, you’d expect almost everything to take place in his head.  But afterwards, there were times when I thought some of his head time could have been cut a little shorter.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s interesting and engrossing.  It’s generally fast paced, except for the few times when Alif is thinking too much.  It’s another great non-western-centric fantasy.  As far as Middle Eastern stories go, I liked it almost as much as The Golem and the Jinni which, by the way, I have the sequel of and plan to read in the new year.

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