A review by Kathy Sinclair
G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel, written just before (and possibly in anticipation of) the Arab Spring, is a hard book to pin down in terms of genre. Alif the Unseen has been variously described as cyberpunk (no), science fiction (not really), fantasy (maybe), thriller (yes), contemporary myth (close), and crypto-philosophy (sort of). Perhaps it’s best just to accept at the outset that it does weird and unrecognisable things to conventional ideas about genre, and move on.
This is a story about technology and faith, code and symbol, and the relationship between the seen and unseen in both a modern, virtual-world sense and an older, mythological sense. The main protagonist is Alif, a gray hat playing with code to protect his multifarious clients from discovery by the state’s censorship machine. Alif’s father is Arab but his mother is Indian, and he suffers therefore from class distinctions that don’t work in his favour in the society he moves in.
Before the action of the book opens, Alif has met and fallen in love with the aristocratic Intisar – at first online, and later IRL when she visits his home in his parents’ absence – and has convinced himself that he and she are, or will be, married. The book starts with Alif’s baffled despair when Intisar drops contact with him, and asks that she might never see his name again.
In an agony of adolescent melodrama, Alif, who is brilliant as well as (at this stage) pretty shallow, sets out to build a special program that’ll do just that – hide his online existence from Intisar, completely, utterly and without exception. Little does he know that the program he creates, which he dubs TinSari, will attract the gaze and the ire of the state’s chief censor, a figure known only as The Hand. Just when things are getting really hot, Alif receives a parcel from Intisar – a strange-smelling old book called the Alf Yeom. And, as they say in the classics, that is how all the trouble begins…
I don’t want to spoil this plot too much, because I think it will detract from the enjoyment of it if I do – this is a book that succeeds, in no small measure, because of its author’s ability to finely manage an effective slow burn to both a moral and practical epiphany; giving away too much of the journey would certainly disrupt that. It is a fair assumption, from the opening premises, that this is going to be at least partially a pursuit / quest plot and so, indeed, it is. There is more to it than this, but at heart it is a very good quest story; it suited me because I like a well-developed quest!
I will disclose that, as well as computing, this book is about the mysteries and codes of Islam, and is predicated on the idea that creatures such as djinn, efreets (ifrits) and demons exist and can interact with some humans in some circumstances. Using djinn as characters in their own right (especially the inimitable and fantastic Vikram the Vampire) is a bold move but one that pays off – mostly – for Wilson. I think she overreaches a bit with some of the supporting cast within the djinn city, but the djinn who have the key roles with the human characters – Alif, his neighbour and friend Dina, fellow code hacker NewQuarter, and Sheikh Bilal – are very well achieved. I’m always a tad sceptical of books that try to do science and magic in the same story, but Wilson’s twist on this is novel enough to get her a pass on this score.
One of the great strengths of the book is in its strong evocation of place, both real places and fictive, mythical ones. Description is, for want of a better expression, organic; streets and houses, cafes and crystal roads, are teased out within the context of the people moving in them, which is so much better than walls of text outlining the nose hairs on every fly. I often think over-description is a common failing of high fantasy, and some urban fantasy too; that Alif the Unseen sidesteps this trap is to its credit, and makes it a much more readable book.
Overall, I think this book fulfils its ambitions and then some, which was a most pleasant surprise given how slow it was to warm up. This isn’t one for those who want to be engaged from page 2, but if you give it a little time, it will hook you in, and it doesn’t disappoint in its payoff.
|Australian Pub.:||August 2012|
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin|
|Price :||$29.99 Aust inc. GST|