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Alif the Unseen Paperback – April 2, 2013
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Praise for Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic, and the kind of smart, honest writing mind that knits together and bridges cultures and people. You should read what she writes.”Neil Gaiman, author of Stardust and American Gods
[A] Harry Potterish action-adventure romance [that] unfolds against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. . . . A bookload of wizardry and glee.”Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Outrageously enjoyable . . . The energetic plotting of Philip Pullman, the nimble imagery of Neil Gaiman and the intellectual ambition of Neal Stephenson are three comparisons that come to mind.”Salon.com
An intoxicating, politicized amalgam of science fiction and fantasy . . . that integrates the all-too-familiar terrors of contemporary political repression with supernatural figures from The Thousand and One Nights.”Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post
Open the first page and you will be forced to do its bidding: To read on.”Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Out of Oz
A magical book. The supernatural and sociopolitical thriller Alif the Unseen is timely literary alchemy, a smart, spirited swirl of current events and history; religion and mysticism; reality and myth; computer science and metaphysics. . . . Alif the Unseen richly rewards believers in the power of the written word.”The Seattle Times
[An] excellent modern fairytale . . . [Wilson] surpasses the early work of Stephenson and Gaiman, with whom comparisons have already been made. . . . Alif the Unseen will find many fans in both West and East. They will appreciate it for being just the fine story it is and as a seed for potent ideas yet to come.”io9.com
A book of startling beauty and power.”Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles
Alif the Unseen . . . defies easy categorization. Is it literary fiction? A fantasy novel? A dystopian techno-thriller? An exemplar of Islamic mysticism, with ties to the work of the Sufi poets? Wilson seems to delight in establishing, then confounding, any expectations readers may have.”Pauls Toutonghi, New York Times Book Review
A fast-paced, thrilling journey between two worlds, the seen world of human beings and the unseen world of the supernatural.”The Philadelphia Inquirer
A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.”Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts
A delirious urban fantasy which puts the unlikely case for religion in an age of empowering and intrusive technology.”The Guardian (UK)
Alif the Unseen is a terrific metaphysical thriller, impossible to put down. The fantastical world Alif inhabitsat once recognizable and surreal, visible and invisibleis all the more fantastic for the meticulously detailed Koranic theology and Islamic mythology Wilson expertly reveals. A multicultural Harry Potter for the digital age.”Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollahs’ Democracy and The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
Alif the Unseen is a true chimera. . . . There are few authors who can pull off dealing with religion, dogma, and mysticism as well as sci-fi, and Wilson is one of them. Alif the Unseen contains elements that will appeal to fans of the ecstatic digital visions The Neuromancer, devotees of the mythological richness of The Thousand and One Nights, international-news junkies and fellow hacktivists.”Tor.com
Written just before the Arab Spring, this wild adventure mixes the digital derring-do of Neal Stephenson with the magic of The Thousand and One Nights. . . . Alif the Unseen is a rich blend of storytelling magic.”San Francisco Chronicle
An ambitious, well-told, and wonderful story. Alif the Unseen is one of those novels that has you rushing to find what else the author has written, and eagerly anticipating what she’ll do next.”Matt Ruff, author of Fool on the Hill and The Mirage
Passion, power, and technology converge in this imaginative novel.”Oprah.com
Imaginative . . . Brilliant . . . Alif the Unseen . . . draws on Islamic theology, the hacking underworld, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, spy thrillers, and the events of the Arab Spring to weave an urban fantasy’ in which the everyday and the supernatural collide. . . . A first novel that is witty, imaginative, and unorthodox in all senses.”The Observer (UK)
Willow Wilson is an awesome talent. She made her own genre and rules over it. Magical, cinematic, pure storytelling. It’s nothing like anything. A brilliant fiction debut.”Michael Muhammad Knight, author of The Taqwacores
Wilson manages to keep the various fantastical, technological, political and religious plates spinning without ever losing track of the story, or getting bogged down in polemic. . . .Though Alif the Unseen was recently compared to Harry Potter . . . it has more in common with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.”The National (UAE)
One of the most compelling narratives you’ll read this year, Alif offers masterful insight into contemporary Middle Eastern societies whose ongoing transformations are as unexpected and profound as those in our own. It is also a powerful reminder of how far fantasy has come since Tolkien.”Jack Womack, author of Random Acts of Senseless Violence
An intriguing mix of fantasy, romance and spirituality wrapped up in cyberthriller packaging. . . . Wilson’s desert fantasy moves at the breakneck speed of a thriller through cityscapes, wilderness and ethereal realms as she skillfully laces mythology and modernity, spirituality and her own unique take on technological evolution. . . . Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind story, both contemporary and as ancient as the Arabian sands.”Shelf Awareness (online)
Wilson writes beautifully, tells a great story, and even makes computer hackery seem like magic.”Sunday Times (UK)
The real magic of Alif the Unseen is catching a talented writer early in her career.”Rita Mae Brown
Outstanding . . . Wilson’s novel delights in bending genres and confounding expectations: It’s both a literary techno-thriller and a fantasy that takes religion very seriously. . . . Alif the Unseen . . . is one of the most inventive, invigorating novels of the year.”The Christian Science Monitor
A fantasy thriller that takes modern Islamic computer hackers fighting against State-based repression and entangles that with the fantastical Djinn-riddled world of One Thousand and One Nights. . . . Like a novelization of one of Joss Whedon’s best Buffy episodes crossed with a Pathé newsreel of the Arab Spring uprisings. It’s a page-turner.”The Austin Chronicle
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Top customer reviews
Lost the 1stStar because it lingers. Some chapters are move smoothly, and move the story forward, others linger in a particular place, or event, and just stay there for a long time, they provide un-needed details and just kept things in one place for no apparent reason in my opinion.
It lost the 2nd Star due to religious rhetoric. I do understand that its supposed to be set in an Islamic country and what not, but in some situations it just goes into this mini-sermons that come out of no where. It felt like those philosophies were being forced into the story, and hence forth into the reader.
I do appreciate how the author tried to make the characters relate-able, but I honestly couldn't relate to them.
All in all, I was enjoyed, but I'm not sure which crowd was she writing this for, those who were familiar with the culture, or those who weren't .
Remarkably, for such a complicated book, there is a very clear and discernible plot. At no point do you worry that the characters will just continue to live lives of hopelessness or ennui. Instead, all these people are going places -- some of them not very good places, but they have motives and goals.
Alif is a hacker who gets his heart broken and so creates a program that identifies his beloved and erases him from her sight. He refers to it as pulling a hijab between them. But it turns out that in doing so, he has created something that he can use, but not understand why it works. And then she sends him the book of A Thousand And One Days, which is the Jinn version of A Thousand and One Nights. And state surveillance! The dark anti-hacker. Arab spring! Cyberpunk and sand dunes and quantum computing.
Have you ever tried describing what's going on in Foucault's Pendulum? And been reduced to uttering disjointed fragments like, "Pinball. Homunculus. Rosicrucians!"? That's how I feel trying to describe this book. Only, and this is an interesting contrast to, say, God's War, in that faith in this book is not an instrument of oppression (self and others), but a vast source of strength for believers.
I really appreciated the ... diversity in this book. There's a prince, there's an upper-class woman, there are lower class women. Our hacker is half-Arab, half-Indian. Wherever the City is, it felt real, the way the best worldbuilding makes you feel, like there are palaces AND slum, and migrant workers and class, oh holy mackerel, the class isssues. But none of that slows down the story or makes you feel Educated.
It will be interesting to see how the story ages. There is a lot that is relevant to recent, events, that may not age well.
<blockquote>Like all things, like civilization itself, the arrests began in Egypt. In the weeks leading up to the Revolution, the digital stratosphere became a war zone.</blockquote>
Anyone who has been reading my reviews for a while understands that I am a huge fan of in-character story-relevant philosophy. This book is full of amazing, brain-twisting observations.
<blockquote>“The convert will understand. How do they translate ºyw in your English interpretation?”
“Atom,” said the convert.
“You don’t find that strange, considering atoms were unknown in the sixth century?”
The convert chewed her lip. “I never thought of that,” she said. “You’re right. There’s no way atom is the original meaning of that word.”
“Ah.” Vikram held up two fingers in a sign of benediction. He looked, Alif thought, like some demonic caricature of a saint. “But it is. In the twentieth century, atom became the original meaning of ºyw, because an atom was the tiniest object known to man. Then man split the atom. Today, the original meaning might be hadron. But why stop there? Tomorrow, it might be quark. In a hundred years, some vanishingly small object so foreign to the human mind that only Adam remembers its name. Each of those will be the original meaning of ºyw.”
Alif snorted. “That’s impossible. ºyw must refer to some fundamental thing. It’s attached to an object.”
“Yes it is. The smallest indivisible particle. That is the meaning packaged in the word. No part of it lifts out—it does not mean smallest, nor indivisible, nor particle, but all those things at once. Thus, in man’s infancy, ºyw was a grain of sand. Then a mote of dust. Then a cell. Then a molecule. Then an atom. And so on. Man’s knowledge of the universe may grow, but ºyw does not change.”
“That’s . . .” The convert trailed off, looking lost.
Read if: You love The Virtuous Hacker, or technology/magic mashups, or reading about the possibilities of the meanings of words. And if you'd like to see veiled women being strong without losing their self-identification.
Skip if: You are looking for a book with certainty, or clear answers.
Foucault's Pendulum, for thematic similarities
Trouble and Her Friends, for hacking and the price of it.
Wilson includes quite a bit of tension between the unseen/hidden/belief and the seen/known/reality, as well as between the supernatural and "real" world. The unseen is manifested in many ways throughout the story including the computer aliases that protect and shield the gray-hat hacktivists, the traditional clothing of veils and robes worn by many characters, the unknown state censors, and most importantly to the story, the world of jinns. As the book progresses, that which is hidden and unseen becomes seen and known. This is especially true for many of the characters in the novel. At first, I found Alif to be a rather pathetic main character who lacked courage and whose whining/pining was irritating. However, as Dina so eloquently says to him "I was annoyed with the boy you were, I liked the man I knew you would become." This was also true for me. At the end, I felt I understood and like Alif as he grew and changed. Dina also becomes better known to both Alif and the reader. I truly liked her character. She is a character of piety, devotion, gentleness, and contentedness who chooses to wear veils. Yet none of that keeps her from being a "bad-ass" who can quickly cut to the chase with both her words and actions. Her perceptions, understanding, and believe in and about the supernatural and reality are insightfully keen. Dina truly knows and sees herself, it is up to the reader and Alif to move her from unseen to known. Other characters change and reveal their true selves throughout the story including Intisar, The Hand, NewQuarter, Azalel, and many other of the Jinn.
The story also explores the ideas of the role and importance of religion in society and compares and contrasts it to more ancient supernatural fantasies. I particularly liked when the conversation between Alif and the Sheikh as they were discussing the morality of actions conducted in virtual space. The conversation ends with the quotation, "If a video game does more to fulfill a young person than the words of prophecy, it means people like me (the Sheikh) have failed in a rather spectacular fashion." This was followed by Alif saying "You're not a failure ... It's only that we don't feel safe. A game has a reset button. You have infinite chances for success. Real life is awfully permanent compared to that,". Definitely interesting food for thought. In many places, the novel seems to try and blend mysticism and spirituality. I enjoyed the parallel tracks of have a man of religion along with a jinn.
Other topics that are given a lot of attention are knowledge and freedom. The novel is about the flow of knowledge and stresses coded knowledge heavily. There is the issue of censorship and who can and should control knowledge. The grey-hats try to make all (even morally questionable) content free and available while The Hand works consistently to shut it down. The grey-hats are working for a revolution based on the free exchange of knowledge. There is also the idea of knowledge as power and danger. The central book in the novel, The Alf Yeom, is desperately sought after in order to gain power and knowledge of the ages. The Hand firmly believes he who is knowledgeable enough to read and understand the Alf Yeom and has the powerful means to exploit it will ultimately be the winner. There is also forgotten knowledge and here is where the world of jinns comes heavily into play. As the names of the jinn and their history is forgotten by man, they become less known, seen, and believed. Throughout this novel, the reader gets to explore Wilson's vision of the jinn world. It is very a very enjoyable tour. Additionally, knowledge as changeable is explored, especially with regards to the meaning of words and what knowledge is lost in translation between languages. One character states "There was the Quran, which shattered language and put it back together again in a way no one had been able to replicate, using words whose meanings evolved over time without the alteration of a single dot or brushstroke." Metaphors are described in the novel as “knowledge existing in several states simultaneously and without contradiction.” Lastly, there is the issue of how does one know? Is it by seeing or is faith enough? One character says "that man's innovation is entirely known to God; it means there is no such thing as fiction." and another character says "every innovation started out as fantasy."
This is a well written and intriguing book. Except for stopping to research the meaning of unfamiliar words (the author has included a glossary in the back), this is an easy and quick read. They pace really picks up once Vikram the Vampire is introduced. They ending is a bit contrived and too neatly packaged for my taste, but the substance and enjoyment in between is worth it.
Anyway, I truly loved the parts of the story that involved Alif and the various jinn he encounters on his adventure, and The Hand is a pretty good villian. However, the end of the book was a total let down. I felt like I do when I read a Stephen King novel, "what the heck just happened?". I hoped against hope that there was one more chapter, an epilogue, or something, but no, the book just ends. I'd love to know what happened to the Convert and her baby, Sheikh Bilal, Azael, NewQuarter, the maarid, etc.
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I would definitely look forward to her writing in the future.