26 May 2012

Book (P)Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

I've had a tough time composing my thoughts on this book.  I started reading it quite a few weeks ago and didn't get very far, and then I finished reading it, lickety-split, over the last four days. Since the book weighs in at over 400 pages, that's a lot of lickety-splitting, though admittedly I did some heavy skimming.

As in so many cases, I was originally drawn to Alif the Unseen by the cover.  I am very judging when it comes to books and their covers, and I think anyone who feebly claims otherwise is full of fewmets, a term I intentionally use as a double-entendre, as an allusion to one of my favorite books, and for its alliterative bonus. As they say, an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.

Anyway, the cover: I don't know if it's an existing typeface, but the word Alif is nicely lettered & spaced,  and it looks like it could be calligraphed.  What's more, upon closer inspection, the decorative lines & dots within the letters resolve into circuitry, so it's a nice design AND it reflects back on the text itself.  Already I was intrigued, so when it was described to me as an Arab Spring-meets-the DaVinci Code, I had to give it a try.

I can see why the publisher would want to market it as Da Vinci Code-like, but in my opinion that's selling the book far too short.  Yes, there are moments of fast-paced pursuit for artifacts that may (or may not) be of great doctrinal import with characters who may (or may not) be what they seem, and readers who like Dan Brown's books will find much to enjoy here.  But Alif is so much more than that: it's a contemporary fairy tale for our time, with all of the original fairy elements that were once familiar to peoples the world over before Disney decided to bowdlerize them into unrecognizable, milquetoasty wholesomeness.

Set in an unnamed Arab country, Alif is a novel of the downtrodden people, the theocratic State, a cautionary tale, a revolution in the making, and a quest that is both intellectual and spiritual.  Alif the character is a clever but somewhat weak-minded computer hacker who sells his skills to the highest bidders, be they Islamists, Communists, feminists, terrorists, or any other kind of -ists; he simply has no belief in any cause beyond generally valuing freedom of speech and not getting caught for his "gray hat" activities. His confidence exceeds his ability when he decides to write code for a new program called Tin Sari (an acronym for the lover who spurned him for her arranged husband) that draws the attention of the Hand, the head of State surveillance and, incidentally, his lover's new husband-to-be. He goes on the run with his best friend from childhood, and forthwith they encounter the various levels of the literal and metaphorical Unseen: djinn, demons, fabled texts, a Western Islamic convert, a quartz city in the middle of the desert, a Mos Eiseley-style cantina, and a political torture center.

To say more of the story would do a disservice to the reader, so I'll only say that the reader should expect heavy infusions of pop culture allusions, a humor that occasionally reminds me of Joss Whedon's, and lots of discourses on religion, politics,  and technology that aren't always mutually exclusive. Alif the Unseen feels both startlingly fresh and intimately familiar, and I think it's a stroke of brilliance on her part to pair the world of fairy tale contained in our collective unconscious with the world of technology and its exponential capacity for change.  Anyone who doubts Alif's ability as a hacker to change the world has had their head up their ass for the last two years, and anyone who doubts that the young, bright minds of today are disengaged from politics should read this book.

I do think Alif could benefit from some culling and scuttling, and the writing itself is a little uneven, but I think I understand the author's urgency to want to put everything in there. G. Willow Wilson says in her introduction that writing Alif was born of a rage that she had to address her three main audiences separately: comic book geeks, literary NPR types, and Muslims. It's an impressive amalgamation of subjects I've never seen married together in one novel, and if the author's reach occasionally exceeds her grasp, it's only because her reach is so very ambitious.

NB: This book will have a simultaneous US and UK release of July 2, 2012. I received an ARC of it from my Grove/Atlantic sales rep. Incidentally, this book qualifies as an entry in my New Authors challenge hosted by Literary Escapism.


  1. Nicely discussed! The "fewmets" reference made me cheer; I must have read that trilogy a hundred times when I was a teenager. I love Jane Yolen.

  2. I received this title from netgalley. I, too, picked it Bc of its cover....haven't yet read it. great review.

  3. Hmmmm, I'll have to ruminate on this one. Not my style, but I loved your (P)review.



  4. Awesome review - adding it to my wish list.

  5. Love your thoughts on the cover design -- I must agree that it is so striking! I had this on my review TBR but thought I might pass given the length and my crazy summer -- but now you have totally changed my mind! Will have to give this one a read!

  6. Very nice review. I agree about the covers, I like both - this yellow one and the one on my own copy - the dark purple one.

    I agree with so much, and also feel like author's mind is this interesting place you'd like to take a look at. So many clever ideas!

  7. It's a lot of fun to read, the action starts almost immediately and there is no let up. It's one of the books I'm recommendeding to both my son and husband. In a way, it reminds me somewhat of Catherynne M. Valente's books in language and description, but it's more accessible. It's not just another potato chip book, easily forgotten and the action and pace of the story make it very readable. I'm glad I read it.


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