Alif the Unseen is a mess of a book, but in a good way. There is elements of cyberpunk, graciously borrowed from Neuromancer. There’s revolutionaries straight from today’s news stories. There’s teenager drama that would be right at home at Degrassi High. And underneath all of that is the Quran.
Alif is a “grey hat”, which is what H4X0rz (sorry, I’m from the 90s, I had to) are calling themselves now, I guess. Alif’s clients needs to keep their sites of objectionable content up and out of the control of the government’s censorship programs. After a bad break up, his ex sends him a strange, ancient book. The book catapults him and his neighbor, Dina (seriously, Dina is amazing and I want more Dina stories because she is the best), into several life threatening adventures, in real life, in online life and in the world of the jinn.
The first two acts are incredible. The setting, the culture, the diversity of the characters are all so refreshing and original for science fiction. It’s the third act where the plot begins to stumble and fall apart. After Alif escapes prison with the help of NewQuarter01 (normally I hate when a character gets introduced so late in the game, but NewQuarter is a delight), the story looses steam. There’s a lot of techspeak, which, for a layperson like me, caused my eyes to glaze over. The climax gets resolved with the help of a deus ex machina mob that just wanders in at a pivotal moment. For maybe a minute, you’re made to think that a main character has bit the dust, but it’s a painfully obvious little twist that only Alif doesn’t see coming.
Then there’s Insitar, the ex, the plot device with no personality. Insitar and Alif are suppose to be so in love that early on, they sign a marriage contract (even though, without witnesses, it technically isn’t valid). Then they break up and Alif realizes the real love of his life is Dina. I know how fickle teenage love is, but the speed at which Alif drops the torch he was carrying for Insitar is almost instantaneous. Soon, Alif is noticing how pouty and high maintenance she is. At the inevitable final confrontation with Insitar, Alif stops a group of men from the revolt from bothering her; the implication is pretty clear that they were going to rape her. After a short conversation where Insitar realizes Alif is with Dina now, she just…wanders off. Into a mob. That was going to rape her a minute ago. But that’s no big deal, because Alif is with Dina and they walk home together. Alif offers a pity “you can come with us” to her, but no, she’s fine. In the mob. That was going to rape her a minute ago. So I’m Team Dina and Team Insitar. Or Team Give Insitar a Personality Make Over and Not let Her Get Raped in The Mob at least.
Even with the lackluster third act, I would still recommend Alif the Unseen to any science fiction lover that loves to try new things.