In a Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker with the handle Alif shields his clients — whoever will pay, including dissidents, Islamists, and Westerners— from online surveillance. Alif loves an upper class woman, Intisar, who has unfortunately been betrothed to a princely type. Alif is of course heartbroken. But then Alif’s computer is breached by a nefarious “Hand”, despite his expert precautions, and Intisar secretly sends him The Thousand and One Days, an ancient and secret book of the djinn. Things get weird, and Alif and his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina, find themselves in the company of djinns, imams, and hackers as they race against time and against The Hand to uncover the secrets of the book–and foment revolution in the Middle East.
So: hackers, genies, Arab Spring, and young love. What’s not to love? And some of the world-building conceits are super–djinn using laptops, for instance, and old mystical books as the basis for hacker code. Great ideas, here. But I don’t think it lived fully up to its potential. Spoilers ahead!
Dina was awesome (and it was great to have a badass character wearing a niqaab!) and the main djinn in our story, Vikram, was highly entertaining. The other characters, including Alif, were sadly two-dimensional. The villain literally (literally!) strokes his demon buddies’ heads in his final scene. Alif seems whiny and adolescent and you wonder why Intisar was into him in the first place. ”The convert”–who remains unnamed–is a blonde American student who converted to Islam and now wears a head-scarf. At first she seems like she has potential to add a different perspective to the narrative, but she ends up being sort of an author-insert (although the author denies this was her intent, it’s really hard to look past the similarities.) The convert has all kinds of deep things to say about the nature of Islam and the divide between West and East…and that’s about all she says.
And speaking of the nature of Islam, the apologetics get a little heavy. To wit: the convert, who has struggled the whole book with being “half in, half out”, gets impregnated by a djinnand achieves an extreme level of religious enlightenment and peace. I rolled my eyes, for sure. There are also many scenes where characters recite the Quran or pray special lines to repel demons or evil djinn- which, fine, we’re talking about the Middle East here, prayer is par for the course–but the cumulative effect was pretty heavy-handed.
Also, Alif is blithely sexist. At one point he remarks that Dina handled a situation so well, he almost forgot she was a girl. He saved the bloody bedsheet from his first sexual encounter with Intisar, and sends it to her later with a note “You might need this.” So he’s kind of an immature creep. And I get that he grows by the end, and I get that Wilson was (probably?) trying to portray a sexist society rather than condone a sexist character, but he’s so two-dimensional that it’s not enough. It ends up feeling a bit un-enlightened for a book that’s all about revolution and enlightenment. And why was Dina–strong, confident, wonderfully written, pious and thoughtful Dina–in love with this schmo, Alif? Girl, you can do better.
The pacing is so quick that by mid-way, it feels like the speed is just disguising the randomness of the hijinks. Lots of stuff happens, but there’s little reflection on why, or how things got that way in the first place. For instance, our hero meets a genie who doesn’t want to help them. Alif gathers his courage, trusts his gut, and runs through the misty genie to open a door to reveal…well, I almost expected the genie to say, “Sorry, Alif, your princess is in another castle.” I wanted more about this genie! What is his deal? Why is he so grumpy? Are all genies grumpy? What happens to him after he gets entangled with this group of humans? More world-building, please!
Rating: 3/5. It reads more YA than adult fiction, which is fine, of course…but I think it wants to be adult literature, and the ideas are adult-literature-worthy, and that’s why I have all these gripes. I wanted more complex characters and more unanswered questions. And I wanted Dina, not Alif, to be the protagonist. That said, it’s still worth a read if you’re intrigued by the ideas at all, and Wilson has an interesting perspective that made me put her other books on my to-read list. (Edit to add: it looks like Wilson has done a few graphic novels, which makes a lot of sense given the style of this book.)