Author: G. Willow Wilson
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Alif the Unseen is one of those obscure novels that not many people have actually heard of, but, thanks to my numerous GoodReads friends who read such varied genres, it somehow came to my attention. Needless to say, all my friends have LOVED this book. For me, though, Alif the Unseen was slightly boring, hard to get through, and dragged ever-so-slightly. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half the book, but I wasn't as impressed as everyone else. While Alif the Unseen remains to be a difficult book for me to categorize, for it is full of so much within its pages, I can most definitely guarantee one thing - you haven't seen anything like it before.
Wilson's debut is the tale of a young hacker, Alif, whose lover, Intisar, refuses to see him again for she is having an arranged marriage to a man of a much higher status than Alif. Upset over his broken love story, Alif creates a software program that recognizes Intisar online and blocks all mention of him from her. Unknowingly, however, the Hand, a powerful organization, finds Alif. At the same time, Intisar sends Alif an old book - a powerful one - and before he knows it, he's on the run with his childhood friend, Dina.
Alif the Unseen is a strange tale, one that just keeps going, without stop. It starts off interestingly enough, drawing you into the rich setting of the Middle East, but before long, it began to drag for me. You see, Alif the Unseen never stops in its pace, which isn't a bad thing, but at times, it felt disjointed. Amongst the action, there are awkward moments of long conversation and the pace suddenly slackens, only to pick up again, all rather suddenly. It was a bit off-putting, I must say, but by the second-half of the tale, I was either used to it or too invested in the story to care. For some reason, the second-half of this story appealed to me much more than the first and I slowly began to fall in love with the characters and the fantasy elements of this piece, all with a backdrop of modern-day Middle Eastern culture and computers.
One of the best elements of Alif the Unseen is, hands-down, the characters. While Alif himself comes across as rather lame at first, especially since we can see from the beginning that Intisar isn't all that great and he's simply infatuated with her, Dina, his childhood friend, is a kick-ass protagonist to contend with. I loved her strong will, vulnerable qualities, and clear head that came in use during times of need. Vikram, a djinn-like creature that Alif winds up meeting, was another one of my favorite characters. Wilson's debut is full of humans, djinns, hackers, and even Americans, believe it or not. With such a wide variety of personalities, it's tough not to be sucked into this tale. Even better, the dialogue is witty, amusing, and will keep you on your toes, eagerly flipping the pages for more.
Nevertheless, for me, Alif the Unseen didn't stand out as an extraordinary novel. Yes, it was good, had an intriguing host of characters, and a unique plot, but it was also a tough story to get through and rather boring at times. But, I am quite sure this is an issue only I will have. Unlike my friends, I have grown up learning of the culture of the Middle East. As an Indian who has many Muslim friends, who has grown up surrounded equally by mosques and temples, who has had Arabian tales told to me by my grandmother, Alif the Unseen wasn't nearly as exotic as I think my other friends found it to be. It didn't enrich my knowledge of the country or culture any more than I already had, thus, while I enjoyed it, I wasn't quite blown away by it either.
Still, an excellent idea, very engaging dialogue, and some unforgettable characters lie within the pages of this book. I am confident that readers who are new to Middle Eastern settings or tales richly seated amongst those of A Thousand and One Nights will thoroughly enjoy and undoubtedly be swept off their feet by this debut. Despite my qualms with it, and slightly indifferent stance towards it, I still cannot help but look forward to Wilson's next novel. If nothing else, here is an author who isn't afraid to help spread the word about a little-known country or culture in literature today and for that, this certainly merits a read.