Bingo 11 Book Club
In preparation for CBR book club in September, I picked up Alif the Unseen; I chose this one since I’d already read one of the other options (The Bear and the Nightingale) and I picked up the other option off the library shelf, flipped through it, and decided ‘Nope, not my style, this writing would drive me nuts’. Having now read Alif the Unseen, I have to say, good job whoever suggested this.
In some ways, the story reminded me of an Arabian Ready Player One, except that this was published in 2012 whereas Ready Player One was published in 2011, so it’s unlikely that Willow Wilson saw that before she wrote her version. Alif is the handle of the hero who is a hacktivist in his somewhat dystopic world where there’s a lot of government surveillance and restrictions of various freedoms. He also has some personal difficulties as the novel opens: his lover is leaving him for the man her parents have arranged for her to marry. His professional issue is that he’s written this program that he isn’t sure how it works, just that it does, and what it can do is identify a person based on how they use language. The government notices this and starts to track him down. This eventually leads to Alif’s immersion in the world of jinn and the folklore of the Thousand and One Nights, except he’s gotten his hands on the mysterious potentially jinn-dictated Thousand and One Days.
The adventure is intriguing and the world has so much promise, and the adventure is reasonably well paced. Alif gets almost caught, escapes, caught, escapes, etc more than once, and his friends or at least allies are along for the ride. Some of these side characters are the stars, particularly Vikram. Too much here would be spoilers, but seriously, Vikram is an interesting figure; so is Sheikh Bilal the leader of a mosque who at one point gives Alif some help and gets pulled into his adventure. The women on the other hand are far less interesting, and a bit more stereotype. Dina is the childhood friend who is just there for most of the time, and there’s also the American scholar who is never named, just referred to as ‘the convert’ since she did apparently convert to Islam when she came to somewhere in the Persian Gulf. She gets pulled into things too. There’s also a cat who keeps on turning up; all I’ll say about her is keep an eye on the kitty.
What I really enjoyed was the focus on language and understanding of the world and how those things relate; it’s not just the literary stuff, it’s also computer language as well as world-view. The meaning of stories and faith is a key theme to this story, and thankfully you don’t need to understand a lot of Arabic and Islamic lore and mythology to at least somewhat follow the story; I don’t have a lot of background with these areas but I am rather intrigued by some of the possibilities.