One of the categories in the 2016 Read Harder Challenge is to “read a book set in the Middle East.” Those who are doing the challenge with me have recently received my list of books in our library and in the library system which qualify for that category (which are also listed here, for anyone who’s looking), but I feel I should give a special shout out to the book I read for that category, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson.
I’m going to share the review I wrote for Goodreads right after I finished the book, because I don’t think anything I wrote now (months after I read it) would convey my enthusiasm and delight as much as my initial, spontaneous reaction.
What a terrific read! Not like anything else I’ve read in a long time, and not just because it’s a fantasy that revolves around Islamic mythology instead of the much more usual Western/Christian mythology. It sucked me in and I read the whole thing in one day because I couldn’t put it down.
Just describing it is difficult, and a description of the plot will sound much less coherent than the book itself is, but I’ll give it a try. In an unnamed Middle Eastern country known as the State, a young man is a computer hacker (a “gray hat” in his terminology) who goes by the hacker handle of Alif; he’s in love with a rich girl who’s engaged to someone else and of course his heart is broken by her breaking up with him, but, because he’s a hacker and not any brokenhearted young man, he creates a program which he calls Tin Sari that identifies the woman no matter what ISP or email she uses by recognizing her keystrokes and her other patterns. This is a dangerous program for him to create and unleash, because the enforcement arm of the State, an anonymous force known as the Hand, would be glad to have a program like that to track down the hackers and other dissidents in the city. When Alif sends his next door neighbor, Dina, a feisty young woman who wears the hijab and is much more pious than Alif, to return something to his former girlfriend, Dina returns with something the former girlfriend sent to him: a book called The Thousand and One Days, incredibly old and, according to legend, written by jinn. This is where things really get hairy, as the Hand finds Alif and is revealed as the man who’s engaged to Alif’s former girlfriend, and suddenly Alif and Dina are on the run and find themselves in the company of Vikram, a jinn himself, and their trek takes them into the world of the jinn as well as the prisons of the state, the colleges of the rich and the garbage dumps of the poor. Did I mention the book was impossible to put down? It’s not just the plot, though that is filled with twists and turns and surprises (quantum computation as metaphor? Secret identities revealed in unusual ways?). It’s also the characters, full bodied and vivid, contradictory and very real, who kept me reading on, wanting to find out what happened to them.
I have to give a special shout out to Dina, who proves to be one of the most important people in the book, and who constantly reveals new strengths and new depths to Alif and also to the reader. She’s one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across lately, but she’s not strong in the stereotypical kick-ass Amazon fighting woman style; it’s the strength of her convictions and the depths of her courage and perseverance (not to mention her charm) that makes her such an unforgettable character.