Monday, September 03, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen

I checked out Alif the Unseen from the library after Scarlet praised it to the heavens on her blog.

It's a fusion of Arabian fantasy and hacker culture. Maybe if you liked one thousand and one nights and perhaps enjoyed Snow Crash but wished it had a little less virtual reality you would enjoy it.

Set in an unknown country in the middle east in an un-named city, Alif the unseen is a proxy operator getting paid to shield his clients from the ever prying eye of a typical oppressive middle-eastern state. He has a girlfriend, an annoying neighbor, and few other friends, most of whom he's met on the internet. When his girlfriend suddenly breaks off their engagement, his life starts falling apart as the oppressive government suddenly takes an interest in him.

From then on, it's a boisterous romp through the hidden side of the fantastic Arabia: the parts when Djinns live. Our protagonist moves between the world (though not without unease), dragging his annoying neighbor along and getting into one scrape after another as he tries to avoid the authorities and win back his love. He discovers a magic book which allows him to tap into the quantum mysteries of the world, and that sets off a chain of events which leads to an Arab spring.

I wanted to like this book, but the protagonist, unfortunately, is a whiner. Not only is he a whiner, he spends a lot of time being in denial, either about the world he finds himself in, his ex-girlfriend, his annoying neighbor, or even his current state of affairs. In fact, his role in the plot feels like he's just being swept away by one event or another (or by one person or another) without any control whatsoever. As a result, his character doesn't change, and when he does finally grow up, I found the result unbelievable.

Having said that, the world that Wilson creates is enjoyable, and her use of technical details fairly accurate (not withstanding her non-understanding of what quantum computing could actually do), something unusual in a fantasy writer. The motif of a book-within-a-book was fun, but in the end I didn't feel like the author managed to make me think that it was anything other than a MacGuffin.

Would I recommend this book? Mildly. It was worth checking it out at the library, but I certainly wouldn't recommend paying full price for it. If the protagonist annoys you put it down because he's not going to get any less annoying. If you're into the the recent events in the middle east, perhaps it would resonate more for you. As it is, I think I would recommend The Magician King or The Kingdom of Gods over this book.
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