In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups — from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif — the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind.
The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God”, as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground.
When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.
©2012 G. Willow Wilson (P)2012 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
This snappy, issue-aware urban fantasy adventure is the kind of book that Neil Gaiman might have written had he lived in the Middle East. To me, the setting was a breath of fresh air in a genre that could use a little more diversity, and Wilson engages with the intersection between the modern world and the folkloric, spiritual past in a way that has a little more depth and honesty than a typical fantasy novel.
The story, after a prologue set centuries in the past, opens in the present day. Alif, a scrappy, somewhat arrogant young hacker, spends his days helping various dissident and black market groups circumvent the Sauron-like cyber-eye of state security in his unspecified country. When his beautiful upper-class first love jilts him (for reasons that seem particular to that culture), he hits his keyboard and takes petty geek revenge on the young woman. But, like a sorcerer's spell, the program, which may indeed have the mark of otherworldly spirits on its bits and bytes, gets out of control and falls into the wrong hands. The really wrong hands.
However, Alif also manages to acquire an ancient book, that has to do with the lore of the djinn, the supernatural people who still inhabit the world, but are hard to see until one finds true faith. This puts him in touch with some interesting new friends.
The plot, once it unfolds, is a little predictable in its outlines. Of course Alif will eventually fall for the annoyingly devout girl next door. Of course the cantankerous old imam will prove to be a kindly, wise ally. Of course the lore of the djinn will grant Alif superhuman Hollywood hacking powers. Of course the spoiled young prince will find his courage. Of course the bad guy will eventually get his just desserts. But, I liked that these tropes all felt genuinely Middle Eastern in their detail, and had humor. When an Arab Spring-like movement unfolds in the latter part of the novel, Wilson grasps both its hope and its frightening uncertainty.
The novel’s most intriguing ideas, however, feel less than fully developed. I was curious about the author’s vision of Islam as a faith deeper and more sublime than the negative stereotypes most Americans have of it. Conversations that discuss why religious observance matters in an increasingly connected world and how both must transform, consider the relationship between djinn and man (I hadn’t realized that the former were part of the Koran), or explore the power of metaphors in revealing the nature of the universe are interesting. The message felt a little muddled, though, as though the author was trying to find a middle ground between asking questions about faith and promoting her own. Also, speaking as a software developer, let’s just say that the technical aspects of the story rely on a lot of magic realism. Coding and hacking aren’t quite this visual.
Still, I'd rather read a novel that's ambitious and misses a few marks than one that's merely a different coat of paint on familiar ideas. In striving for a synthesis between myth and technology, East and West, tradition and modernity, Wilson manages to both entertain and expand consciousness. That's impressive in a young writer. Audiobook reader Sanjiv Jhaveri provides a wealth of accents and voices, though a few are a little hammy and annoying.
I really did enjoy the book, even though it's kind of a new genre for me ... what i liked most about it is that it took me away from everyday life to a new mysterious existence .... it's also challenging in some aspects ... as it did challenge many of my firmly held beliefs ...
one thing i know for sure ... i will never look at a "veiled" woman the same way again ... which is quite cool really
Story takes the reader into parts of a culture and land that is unfamiliar, yet exciting. A mixture of religion, culture, technology, and adventure appeals to a wide variety of readers.
Sanjiv managed to portray different voices for each character. I found this not only entertaining, but useful as a listener.
Altogether a great listen that compels me to desire more.
I don't have time to actually read anymore... does that make me undignified?
Honestly, this isn't a bad story. I listened to it during my commute and sometimes while at work. IF (and this is a really big IF) you don't mind the narrarator making the most bizarre and uncharacteristic voices for some of Wilson's characters. It really took me out of the story sometimes. One of the djinn characters had the voice of some creepy rapist/pedophile. Even though he's one of the best written characters, I just couldn't handle it. Obviously written by a man, because every time the boy protagonist meets a new woman character, he is always "uncomfortable" at the way that they look him up and down. I appreciated some of the imagery, having grown up on the Arabian Peninsula myself. Accurately described social dynamics. If you can get past the weird performance, as well as all of the pseudo-mysticism (it's like he forgets about it sometimes), then you might enjoy this.
well probably not. it ain't Samuel Beckett
This type of underdog computer hacker story reminds me a lot of Ernest Clines Ready Player One
He provided a clear voice that was strong and seperated the characters well
All of the muslim religion stuff was cool and unique. As i am a recovering catholic I've been exposed to a lot of Catholic dogma and I didn't know much about muslim religion, this provided a fun overview of the magical realism of Islam
I can't understand people who say a book is terrible because its muslim propaganda. I picked this book up to spite those close minded prejudice people and was pleasantly surprised in how much I enjoyed it. Forget the nay sayers who are anti anything that isn't jesus centric, or are American brainwashed. I don't read to be closeminded and perpetuate ignorance. Pick this book up! especially if you like underdog adventure stories and don't mind a bit of the fantastical. Plus it provides some crazy good insight about close minded Americans and enlightens you to different philosophical views while still remaining a page turner. That says something. Trust me it ain't for stupid people
This book promises so much and seems to be delivering on it for some time, however, as the story move toward the ending the author seems to lose all steam and the reader is left feeling empty. I cannot recommend it.
I had to read this book for my world religion class. I struggled reading the first few chapters and gave up so I bought the audio version instead. I enjoyed listening to it way more. It does have a slow start but I enjoyed it.
Entertaining, if not particularly deep techno adventure.
Interesting mix of plausible hacktivism and djinn based Middle Eastern superstition. Plausible escapism. Decent characterisation. A fun romp through the Middle East and it's censorship and it's mythology
Taking place in an unnamed country in the Middle East, Alif the Unseen is a mix of alternate history/contemporary political thriller with fantasy elements.
Alif, the eponymous main character, is a pseudonym for a young hacker in an autocratic Islamic country where he is a poor immigrant offering anonymity and Internet access to anyone who wants it. He helps Islamists, secularists, feminists, religious minorities, anyone who wants to evade the state's Internet firewall and ever-present monitoring.
He also has a rich girlfriend and poor (girl)friend with a crush on him, setting up the rather obvious climax. His rich girlfriend dumping him for her arranged suitor is the precipating event which causes Alif to write a computer program to "erase" him from her presence on the Internet. This program proves to be one that would be very useful for a hyper-monitoring regime like the state, which brings Alif to the attention of the Hand, the head of the state's secret police. Alif becomes a fugitive, on the run and putting everyone he knows and cares about in danger. That's when he runs into djinn.
Alif the Unseen is a work of Western-style fantasy but from a sympathetic Muslim perspective; almost all the characters are Muslims, of varying degrees of piety, and presented from within the context of a modern Muslim country, they manifest as very believable and non-archetypal, for the most part. Alif himself is only nominally a believer, though the author's own Islamic belief can be seen in the way that all the good guys are eventually guided towards some level of faith, or at least appreciation of faith, without hammering the point home with divine intervention.
Rather, the supernatural in this book comes from the various types of djinn, evil, good, and in-between, as befits the original Arabian and Persian myths. Alif walks between the two worlds of humans and djinn. He cleans one djinn's computer of viruses so she can check her email again - these are djinn who also have been touched by the modern world.
The climax, in which humans and djinn alike play a part in bringing down the evil Hand, with uncertain consequences for the future, reads a bit like a more optimistic prelude to the Arab Spring. Even Alif admits, in the finale, that what comes after the revolution may not be particular benevolent.
Interesting story, new culture. Cool ideas about holy books, religion--Not quite L'Engle but sort of.
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