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 fiancé 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.
This is a really hard book to review. It’s full of so many different things. It’s about books, religion, mysticism, spirituality, and technology. It’s also a social commentary on racism, women’s rights and censorship. When books try to be too much they often fall short, but Alif the Unseen was an incredible novel that captivated me.
While the idea behind the novel was interesting and grabbed me immediately, I found the beginning really slow and it was hard for me to get interested in the plot. For the first little while, I didn’t like Alif or any of the other characters introduced. He was a lovesick fool and Dina was overly religious and pious. However, as the novel continues, you’re introduced to these rich characters that are entertaining and interesting. You want to watch the interactions between them and be a part of their world. Alif becomes a better version of himself as the book continues and I found Dina to be loyal, and extremely smart. Vikram was by far my favourite secondary character. He was irreverent and hilarious, which was great comic relief.
The plot is wonderful because it moves at a great pace and there are so many interesting things that happen throughout the novel. G. Willow WIlson used the location of the Middle East so well and made the whole book come alive by including Middle Eastern imagery. This book is my wheelhouse, since it blends the concept of a mystical book with technology. Books and technology basically sum me up in two words.
However, there were things that I didn’t like about the novel. While I found all of the characters to be dynamic, I found it hard to relate to some of their beliefs and values. That’s mostly due to the setting they were in. This book takes place in the Middle East where women’s rights are very behind the times. I’m very aware with how women are portrayed in novels, especially in locations like the Middle East. I thought that since G. Willow Wilson converted to Islam and divides her time between the States and Egypt, she would be very tactful and perhaps progressive about the way she wrote women. I didn’t find this to be the case. Women were side characters and Alif, the main character, was sexist with comments about how he couldn’t believe Dina was “smart as a man”. It grated my nerves to no end. I understand it was supposed to represent his ignorance, but it still drives me nuts when I read things like that. All of the women in the novel were represented as damsels in distress, power hungry, or mysterious spiritual beings. There wasn’t a strong, independent women among them. It was definitely a missed opportunity.
Overall, I still really liked this book and I’d be interested in reading a lot more from G. Willow Wilson.