90 points, 4 ¾ stars!
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 “Hand of God,” as they call 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.
“If man’s capacity for the fantastic took up as much of his imagination as his capacity for cruelty, the worlds, seen and unseen, might be very different.”
Alif the Unseen was an amazing blend of fantasy and sci-fi taking place in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country, and steeped in the culture of the area. I’m amazed at just how much I liked reading this book. I enjoyed the character and the atmosphere. The story wasn’t bad, either.
Alif is a programmer extraordinaire, fighting against the oppressive security state. He’ll take on anyone as a client, as long as they’re fighting against the state in some way. Alif isn’t your typical protagonist, not your likely hero. Some would even call him a terrorist. Alif isn’t strong, or particularly witty. He doesn’t have any sort of training in combat nor is even particularly good at physical activities. He has a bigger opinion of himself than is warranted by his actions. Okay that one isn’t too unusual.
The book starts with Alif making a bit of an ass of himself. Head over heels in love with a girl, he is disappointed when she leaves him due to her father’s wishes and their class status differences. She asks one last wish of him: to make certain she can never find him online again. With this one request, the rest of the book is set into motion combining science fiction and fantasy. The progression of the events in the book had me captivated. It starts off slowly, a romance gone bad,, but then things get real. Alif is in danger. And it only gets worse. First the jinn appear, and they aren’t Genie from Aladdin. And then things get even more dangerous as the Security State and Fantasy and Sci-fi mix.
When I read the blurb, I thought this would be pretty low on fantasy. It isn’t. It is just as much fantasy at is science fiction. And the culture and religion of the area play as much part in the story as the jinn. I love the combination of the elements so much. And I especially appreciate the jinn, something I don’t get to see often. This particular presentation is actually unlike anything else I have ever seen.
And what I like the most about Alif the Unseen is the atmosphere of the book. I love the sense of wonder in the unknown. I love the way Alif finds out there is something just beyond the realm of what he believes to be reality, and the denial that ensues. I love how dangerous that unknown is to know. And what I really, really loved was the book within a book effect.
This entire book had me wanting to read more, at every step of the way. I loved the way Wilson blended all the elements together to create a cohesive, amazing story that pulled itself together.