It’s taken me more than a month to write this review.
That’s not for lack of trying. The terror of the blank page is something I’ve come to terms with – crafting words is one of those things I do. It’s an action I define myself by, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. Every now and then, though, I read something that resonates deeply enough to humble me, to reconsider how good I am at this thing by which I define myself.
Alif the Unseen takes place in an undefined Middle-Eastern country caught between the forces of past and present, faith and dogma, politics and freedom. Conservatism is smothering progress to the general determent of everybody, with those that have power clinging to it and choking out anyone that might oppress them.
Our main character is such a person. He’s a hacker who will help anyone with a cause hide from the insidious forces of old and evil that we call ‘government.’ He’s a relatively well-educated Muslim man in his early twenties whose had an affair and is deeply in love with the wrong kind of person, someone from a different social and racial caste than himself, and if you’re not up to date on the various strata of Middle-Eastern social hierarchies, well, don’t worry. The author has you covered and will explain the ambient levels of prejudice in detail.
Did I mention this book was written by G. Willow Wilson, who you might know from her absolutely stellar work on the Ms. Marvel comics? The prose captures the magic of her other works, building an immersive world that that’s easy to get lost in, one that slowly introduces shades of the fantastic so perfectly that it all seems like part of the living, breathing world.
The woman that Alif was dating is engaged to someone in government, but not just anyone – the man responsible for tracking down cyber-criminals like Alif. She smuggles Alif a book from her soon-to-be husband, a very special book that was never meant for human eyes. Alif can see secrets in it and thinks he understands, but he parses information and the secrets of the book will only betray him.
See, the Muslim faith posits three created beings – the angels, whom are made of light, the djinn, who were crafted from fire, and humankind, who were wrought of clay. The angels are largely ineffable, but the djinn are thought to be very much like us. They have stories, faith, politics… and a human magician once forced a djinn to recite their version of A Thousand and One Nights.
If you haven’t read A Thousand and One Nights, do so. It would be a safe bet to consider it to be the fourth or fifth most influential book on Middle-Eastern thought outside the obvious. It’s also much easier to read than the others, being that it’s a collection of fables and no one has ever said that it is anything else.
Still, scholars have applied the same theories to it as have been applied to bible code, and with similar results. Mystics tend to prefer A Thousand and One Nights, and a good amount of occult philosophy owes a debt to that one book. The idea of a version written by djinn, for djinn, would have any would-be magus chomping at the bit for even a glance at such hallowed pages.
That obsession becomes a major part of Alif the Unssen, but that’s not enough for the likes of G. Willow Wilson. She also takes a look at gender issues in the Middle-East, in the freedom of information and the technological revolution that is happening their right now, and the disdain locals feel for the outsiders that come and think that they know best despite having pilfered everything – everything – from cultures they’ve based themselves on but try to distance themselves from.
It’s a complex and incredibly well-researched book, from the first chapter all the way through to the appendices, there at the end to help those readers that want to know more sate their curiosity.