Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 3 stars

When the grey-hat hacker who calls himself Alif, living in an unnamed city in an unnamed Emirate, comes into possession of a book called The Thousand and One Days, his life suddenly becomes far more exciting than he would like. He, and his childhood friend, Dina, find themselves on the run and enter into a world of shadowy State security agencies, djinn, hidden cities and quantum computing.

It took me nearly half the book before I started warming up to it. This is because (and I appreciate that this is a failing on my part) I have trouble with books where I dislike the characters, especially the protagonist. And Alif starts here as very unlikeable. Shallow, entitled and whiny, it’s not until he’s pulled out of his comfortable world and gets properly stuck into his Hero’s Journey that he starts to become tolerable, as the plot also starts to speed up.

A lot of this starts because the woman that Alif (thinks he) loves rejects him so rather than spending some time crying and then getting on with his life, he decides to build a surveillance system that will wipe him from her electronic life, so that she never has to encounter him again. Uh huh, that’s a normal way to process a breakup, sure.

As someone who writes software for a living, I always wince a bit when any sort of computing (especially hacking) happens in popular culture, as they inevitably get it hilariously wrong. But thinking of this as cyberpunk sort of eased the pain of that, since that’s supposed to all be metaphorical and I just sort of glazed over that.

One thing I did really like about this book was how it portrayed the messiness of revolutions. The way that idealism and mob rule are all tangled up and can’t be easily separated. And what do you do once you’ve started a revolution? Especially one where you can’t even steer it, never mind control it. That sense of powerlessness and things spinning out of control was nicely handled.

So an interesting book, and one that evokes the deep history and conflicted present of the Middle East. I struggled with this, and still don’t really understand what happened at the climax or what Farakhuaz was or how the magic computer was even supposed to metaphorically work. So this didn’t really work for me, but gets pulled up for its setting and the delicious writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857895691
Publisher: Corvus
Year of publication: 2013

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