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Alif the Unseen--a big fat review!

In case you'd like to hear *more* of what I liked about Alif the Unseen, here is a copy of what I wrote on Goodreads.

Characters I absolutely loved, talking about philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual questions and ideas, while meanwhile moving through an exciting, imaginative plot, and with liberal doses of good natured humor throughout—what more could I possibly ask for! I loved this book.

Alif (that’s his handle, not his real name) is the rather clueless, somewhat emotionally obtuse computer hacker who has the misfortune to be the ex-lover of a young woman who’s just been betrothed to the head of the secret police in an unnamed Middle Eastern Gulf Coast country. Worse, he’s a talented hacker, and he’s designed a program that can identify a person from their keystrokes, word use, etc., regardless of how they disguise themselves. You can imagine what would happen if the state got hold of that. Double worse, his ex has sent him a mysterious book, an ancient manuscript, which, if it falls in the wrong hands, may set dire events in motion.

Fortunately, Alif’s good heart has won him, and continues throughout the book to win him, many friends, both in our seen world and in the unseen world of the jinn. There’s Mina, the girl-next-door, whom he’s tended to dismiss since she’s as religiously devout as he is secular, but who continues to surprise him. There’s Vikram the Vampire, an underworld thug whose epithet isn’t there just to scare you, his attractive sister Azalel, who’s known Mina and Alif since their childhood (though they weren’t aware of it), a young American woman known merely as “the convert,” and Sheik Bilal, caretaker of al Basheera mosque, for starters, and others appear throughout the story.

Alif the Unseen is explicitly about the power of Story, of words, of names. Early on, Alif comments that the censors don’t bother with fantasy stories “They think it’s all kids’ stuff. They’d die if they knew what The Chronicles of Narnia were really about,” he remarks—and yet he himself has trouble grasping the import of stories. Dina scolds him early on:

You lent me The Golden Compass! It’s full of jinni trickery, and you were angry at me when I told you that made it dangerous! Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?

Much later, she says to him,

I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world, when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them.

And those there—those are the sorts of provocative things Alif the Unseen gets you to think about, but with a light touch, and with humor, as when Alif has to help an effrit debug his laptop:

I’ve heard cookies are dangerous, said the shadow.

“They’re not. You can’t get a virus without executable content, which cookies don’t have. But the spyware geeks like them because they’re a fast way to collect your information … Just keep your software current—including browser updates—and you should be fine.”

Thanks. The shadow floated over the keyboard as Alif stood and began, as far as he could tell, to check its email.

So this is not a ponderous book.

It’s also suffused with religious faith, portrayed beautifully, naturally—like birdsong, as Dina once observes. Prayer makes a difference; saying “I seek refuge in God from the outcast Satan” has protective power. And Satan plays an actual role; Alif’s conversations with the devil reminded me of Ransom’s conversations with the demon in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

Alif is known throughout the book by his handle, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, but a couple of times there are references to Dina calling him by his actual given name. Such a common, common name, Alif says, somewhat disgustedly, and Dina tells him it’s beautiful. Well. This circumspection means that when his real name finally does get spoken within the story, it’s exceptionally moving. Beautifully done, G. Willow Wilson—that got me all choked up.

There were things I quibbled about here and there in the story—I found it somewhat more difficult to follow the logic of what people were deciding to do than I was expecting, for example—but the test of it for me is how I feel about the story now, more than a week after finishing it: 100 percent positive. So those quibbles are essentially immaterial. I highly recommend this book.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 3rd, 2015 05:23 pm (UTC)
It sounds fabulous!
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:05 am (UTC)
I think you'd really love the conversations between the characters, and the humor is wonderful--that example I gave is more situational, but some of the lines are straight up funny in their own right. And the villain is very scarily banality-of-evil believable.
Sep. 5th, 2015 01:04 pm (UTC)
I bought it right after making that remark, and it is on my Kindle for my copious free time.
Sep. 5th, 2015 01:12 pm (UTC)
I laugh when any of us references our oodles of free time :-)
Sep. 5th, 2015 01:23 pm (UTC)
Sep. 3rd, 2015 05:39 pm (UTC)
God, I loved that book. I probably need to read it again.
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:08 am (UTC)
You know, I can really see you and this book being a supergreat matchup. When I read your comment, some of the things you'd done in the Hexslinger books jumped to mind. Something about the power/horror/majesty/reality of gods and demons and the unseen world, and humans interactions with it. Plus the humor.
Sep. 3rd, 2015 06:01 pm (UTC)
I think a trip to the bookstore is in order...but then again, maybe I should wait until after we move. We have a lot of stuff already!
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:09 am (UTC)
Whenever you get to it, I think you'll enjoy it. You may feel a little frustrated with Alif from time to time, but I think you'll adore the other characters, and Scary Middle Eastern state, and all the details of food and heat and landscape will seem familiar (though this is Persian Gulf, not Egypt. Oh: but Mina is Egyptian).

ETA: icon change to Em reading.

Edited at 2015-09-05 11:10 am (UTC)
Sep. 3rd, 2015 08:25 pm (UTC)
Wonderful, wonderful book, glad you loved it too. :)
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:10 am (UTC)
I really did. Sooo glad to have read it.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:12 am (UTC)
Shyeeah! She really put all that in there! YES: her observations about class and revolution were so trenchant without being in the least heavy handed. HOW DO YOU DO IT G WILLOW WILSON.
Sep. 4th, 2015 12:30 am (UTC)
This sounds like a book I should check out.
I thought about a character who works for a censorship bureau thinking that if things are going to be censored anyway, censoring books is the best opportunity to read things before they're censored.

Also, I posted some music in my journal that I think you'd like.
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:13 am (UTC)
I've had a super-busy week, sorry to be AWOL. I'll come check out the music later today or tomorrow (I like your recommendations and have broadened my horizons substantially because of you).

You would definitely like this book, I think.
Sep. 4th, 2015 12:10 pm (UTC)
"it’s only a book" or "only a movie", or "only a game" is such a wilfully childish way to dodge responsibility.
(Yes, I'm not sure how to find a balance between that statement and being totally dour. :( )
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:18 am (UTC)
We were talking about this later at home, because I had this sense that striking as what Mina says is, holding up the two statements as mutually incompatible, obvious as it seems, wasn't quite the whole story. I mean, that one could argue for situations in which you might hear both from a person without that person being a hypocrite or clueless. I think what I ended up with is that books have the capacity to change the world, but not all books aim that high, and sometimes you can have something--I would argue--that's written only to be light, in-the-moment entertainment. Mina I think would say that even such a book has weight and import, and i agree with that in the sense that if you fill your head with fluff, then all you have in your head is fluff, but I think that a book that merely fills your head with fluff might be dismissible as only a book--without invalidating the statement that books can change the world.
Sep. 7th, 2015 05:41 am (UTC)
I think it'd be pretty hard to find a book (or comic) that's merely fluff - or rather to find whole bookful (etc) of fluff that didn't have impact, whether known to itself or not.
a greeting card, now...I'd be prepared to concede a greeting card might not have wider impact. ;-)
Sep. 5th, 2015 09:55 am (UTC)
The effrit/email scene sounds great!
Sep. 5th, 2015 11:19 am (UTC)
And the book is full of that, without reducing the unseen world to merely a source of laughs.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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