Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson, 2012

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Premise: Alif is scraping by as a gray-hat hacker, helping clients and ducking government censorship and getting his heart broken. But both his girl trouble or his coding skills lead him to a side of the city he’s never known, and he’ll have to adjust what he thinks of as reality to survive.

This was delightful in so many ways. I kept thinking about Snow Crash as I was reading it. Alif is set in the modern (2012ish) Middle East rather than the future, but the relationship between code and myth was both familiar and far more fantastic.

The characters are interesting, the explanations of culture well-placed, and the whole book was a bit prescient. Wilson was living in Egypt as things were shifting towards the 2012 revolutions, and she put all of that movement toward using technology for social change into this plot, but I believe the book was finished before the first open clashes actually happened.

Wilson is in a particularly interesting place to tell a story like this, as both a fan of genre writing and an American-born convert to Islam. It appeals to the American/western speculative fiction fan, but it features entirely Muslim main characters. And the fact that they are Muslim is not incidental to the plot - it is central. This dealt with the mythology of Islam in a way I’ve hardly ever seen, and I loved it. If you’re missing my allusions here, let me spell it out: there are djinn in this book, treated in as interesting, serious, and nuanced a manner as I’m used to seeing fae/elves/angels/etc.

The main criticism I have is that Alif is a fairly reactive character and a little bit of a cliched ‘unlikely hero’ at times, but he pulls it together and I was with him by the end. There is a bit of tone whiplash between a period of serious imprisonment and somewhat wacky running about. Also the ending wasn’t wholly satisfying, aspects were a bit easy and pat.

But overall this was a great world to dip into and a rollicking tale that I really enjoyed.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


  1. I expected to like this more than I did, but it was still pretty interesting.


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