Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

alifSince the vast majority of this review is going to be negative, I am going to start with the good parts. I did (sort of) enjoy this book. Alif is a page-turner. Conscientious hacker Alif gets the government on his ass, meets some jinn, comes into contact with a magic book, and other than an overlong, momentum-killing prison sequence, the story blasts forward right into The Revolution.  This is a skill. A necessary skill to widely-accessible pop-lit. And Wilson has a better grasp on economy of language than many of her page-turner contemporaries. Sure, the speed of the narrative kind of throws setting, character development, plot-coherence to the wind but it is still a fun book nonetheless. I read it quick, and yeah the margins were gigantic so it wasn’t really a 500 page book, but again, I sort of enjoyed it.

Okay, good part over.

This book is shelved and categorized as adult fantasy, but it has much more in common with young-adult (YA). I was shocked when late in the novel, it is revealed the titular protagonist is 23 and not like 17-19. It follows many of the familiar tropes. Outsider protagonist with secret knowledge. Shmoe turned hero. Inexplicably inept antagonists. Hot rich babe shuns main character and, as clearly telegraphed from the very beginning, his true love turns out to be the girl he’s known since he was a child that he has had a sisterly relationship with right up to the plot of the novel*. The books takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and it’s written by an American-born-now-living-in-Cairo Muslim convert. I have absolutely no idea if the above tropes are fiction universalities or they are there because the author is American-born. This goes for any issue of cultural “authenticity” in the novel. I really have no idea. I do know the virgin/whore paradigm Alif’s love interests are stuffed into is even more insidious given the cultural/religious climate – the whore is a whore because she nailed Alif a few times and has slept with 2(!) men and the virgin is a literal virgin who won’t do the same until Alif nabs her hand in marriage. But only if he asks her daddy and he says OK, Alif, she’s all yours.

So Alif is supposedly a pretty good programmer. Thus the novel must talk about technology. Which Wilson either does not know enough about or is purposely dumbing down the text for ignorant readers. This leads to a lot of technical namedropping that doesn’t really gel. Botnet the firewall’s revolving IP addresses, my good sir. The way Alif think/talks about tech is not how tech people think/talk either. This isn’t too harrowing by itself. The problem is that coding is key to the plot. Alif discovers new methods of “quantum coding” that goes “beyond ones and zeros”. How does he do this? Shit, I don’t know. Because every paragraph describing the concept or describing Alif coding is so vague and full of metaphor as to make absolutely no sense. He’s “building towers” of code and the tower is falling because of “redundancy” and “lack of code integrity”. Seriously, a major part of the plot is nonsensical.

Technology failure would be less of a problem if the other genre elements – the magic! The fantasy! The MONSTERS! – worked.

(they don’t)

The jinn, who you would hope would be some combination of grandiose, spooky, otherworldly, etc are just boring and unremarkable. There’s this one scary one that asks you questions until you die (or something) and get this, the way you beat is to… ask it questions instead. The major maguffin – a book titled The Thousand and One Days – something that should be the clever counterpart to the Nights is totally wasted. A better writer would have aped the style of Nights when transcribing parts of the fictional book in the narrative. I love that story-in-story gimmick when an author can pull it off. Not here.

The characters are one dimensional and forgettable too, but I’m getting bored of harping on this book so let’s narrow it down to one of them: the convert. As I mentioned, G. Willow Wilson is an American convert to Islam. The convert is also an American convert to Islam. She is the source of all the eye-rolling passages you’d expect from your typical lazy and shameless author self-insert. The thing that really kills me though – she is never named. Yes, a main character that is around for most of the book and no one thinks to ask her name. Nor does she offer it. It is absurdly distracting. The convert did this. The convert did that. Alif asked the convert this. I can’t believe an editor or proofreader or someone please did not point this out. It is so stupid and third wall breaking. Like text-book writing-getting-in-the-way-of-the-story in a totally fixable way.

The cover blurbs repeatedly compare the book to Neil Gaiman, Neil Stephenson, and Phillip Pullman. I’m starting to wonder if have outgrown the first two, and while I have really fond memories of His Dark Materials, I’m afraid of re-reading it for what I may discover.

*The frequency this trope appears is staggering and creepy. It’s one thing when the sister-not-sister character knew the protag when he was a child and then disappeared for puberty+X years, but Dina (the character in question here) was Alif’s neighbor for his entire childhood through adolescence through young adulthood through modern time. Unsurprisingly, the turnaround from sister-friend to wife-please is unconvincing. This is supposed to be a sign of maturity. It’s like a triumph for the author to point out Dina is less attractive than rich-babe. Our boy Alif becomes man when he stops lusting and begins to appreciate the sexless traditional wifely qualities — perseverance and subservience, total (and undeserved) loyalty to Man, strict adherence to (patriarchal) sanctioned cultural norms — as key.

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