Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had mixed feelings about this novel, but overall I enjoyed it. I struggled with giving this book a 3 or 4 rating. The parts of me that felt deceived or preached at wanted to give the book a 3 and the parts of me that feel that the novel is an accurate portrayal of Middle Eastern culture and mythology wanted to give the book a 4. But in the end, I give the book a 4 because I think people should read this book to expand their knowledge of the world.

At first I felt rather put off because I was expecting a cyber punk thriller set in the Arab world and instead got an urban fantasy or magical realism set in the Arab world. I enjoy urban fantasy quite a bit, but I wasn’t expecting it. The prologue really does set up the story, but it took a long time to realize the connection once the real story began.

Wilson’s best asset in writing this novel is her obvious familiarity with Arab and Muslim culture. She infuses the narrative with bits of knowledge that builds a textured world for the reader. Wilson doesn’t hold back the realities of the Middle East and how people treat each other there, whether it’s men and women, peasants and aristocracy, prisoner and authority, government and the individual, government and the masses.

I didn’t particularly care for the main character at the beginning, but found him to be a real person. Alif is a young man in his early twenties who is self-absorbed, immature, and rude, his redeeming quality is that he is interested in using his computer skills to help other people have a voice on the internet — he doesn’t really care who as long as they pay. As a woman, I may not agree with his thinking, but I understand him and the way he thinks. That goes for many of the characters in this novel, many of whom I enjoy for various reasons. I think that if you want a palatable glimpse into the minds of people who are different from your typical Westerner, this is a good good to pick up because each human character in the novel is a good sample of how Middle Eastern people are.

If you are expecting western women in the female characters in this book, you will be sorely disappointed, but I would argue that Dina’s character is a strong character, especially considering her environment (which I think is something that many people overlook). I would say she is a perfect example of a strong woman who doesn’t need to be violent to get what she wants or needs; she’s smart, resourceful, and thinks ahead. Sure there are times when she can’t get herself out of a physical confrontation, but not everyone knows or is taught how to defend themselves from an attacker. The only problem I had was that Dina would disappear for long periods, some understandable and others it seemed for convenience; I understand that people can be out of the picture for long periods of time in real life, but it’s dissatisfying in a story.

The story itself is actually pretty simple, but made grander by the setting and culture rather than the subject. Boy falls for forbidden girl and she’s taken away, boy throws a fit and comes across something abnormal that brings him a whole lot of trouble that changes his life. I kind of wish there were bigger hints to the true purpose of the story earlier in the novel, I think it would have captivated my interest a little more. The prologue hints at the consequences of dabbling in magical pursuits through the Jin, but the story feels so far removed from Alif’s story that it takes a long time to realize that Alif is playing out his own version of the power struggle revealed in the prologue. There’s so much emphasis placed on the real world and the hacking world that it’s a little jarring when magic turns out to be real. If you are a computer person, you need to read this book with an open mind, this is not science fiction, though the spiritual concepts that are intermingled with programming are imaginative.

I enjoyed many of the philosophical conversations that Wilson brings up in the book, but found many of them to be preachy and unnatural. I’m not saying that characters can’t have a philosophical conversation or two, but it seemed like any time there was a lull in the action, there was a philosophical conversation. How does this situation fit into the world view or what is the religious significance, etc. These conversations made me want to meet the author and talk to her about her thoughts, and it felt more like her thoughts and commentaries versus being something that many of the characters would talk about — with maybe the exception of Sheikh Bilal.

And why was “the convert” never given a name? Is it that she’s so low on the totem pole that no one really cared to know what her name was? I understood Alif’s inclination to call her the convert – being as prejudice as he is about such things it makes sense, but still. She helps him out in all kinds of ways and yet he never bothers to know her name. Is the author trying to tell us something?

If you are looking for an atypical urban fantasy novel seeping with real culture and mythology and want to learn more about Middle Eastern mentality, I would suggest Alif the Unseen. The prose are beautiful and the characters vary within the confines of the cultures they come from.

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