Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I gave this four stars on Goodreads. I’m not sold on the idea of ranking novels and I know my rankings are completely consistent, but this is a book to read and to recommend. It doesn’t get five stars mostly because I need to give Wilson room to grow as an author. This book has the seeds of greatness in it, but I think she still has greater work to write after this.

Summary: Alif the Unseen is a story of IT, Arabic folklore, religion, politics, and love. It mixes Jinn with security forces, ancient texts with C++ code, and insight into the human heart with a political axe to grind. The big takeaway is to humanize Islamic culture for Western audiences and to move the discussion of global politics away from “axis of evil” and towards the human in all of us.

This novel wrapped me up from Chapter Zero and kept me entralled most of the way through. Wilson does an impeccable job with her choice of setting, of tone, and the way she shows us layers of things. Most characters and themes are shown with complexity. In fact, the novel only breaks down when one looks closely at parts that seem to be fully one thing or another. (The love interest and the villain are among the least interesting bits, because they are too polarized. Everything else seems human and fascinating.)

The views on spirituality and politics are especially refreshing. She doesn’t give us simplified versions of these two things, but messy, bloody, complex and risky versions. It is clear to me that Wilson loves humanity and loves her characters because she allows them to be flawed without endorsing the flaws. (Again, this breaks down in the character Dina, who was almost a great character. I loved the risks the author took in making the heroine a conservative-by-choice Islamic woman, who veils herself by choice, but in the end Dina was too didactic and perfect and not human enough.) Wilson’s spirituality and politics are realistic and not idealized and by themselves they would make the novel worth reading, but there are other things even more appealing in her work.

Wilson deftly weaves together threads from the 1001 nights and information technology to put our world into both a new and a familiar context. Sure, some IT details are glossed over, but she knows her stuff and includes enough realism to engage nerds in the tale. The Jinn and the half-world are used to make a point, not just to add spice to the story. Many other authors who try to mix magic and technology should read Wilson and learn from her style.

There are a lot of places this novel could have gone wrong. Wilson took some huge risks, but she clearly has the chops as a writer, a thinker, and a religious person to pull it all off. I look forward to reading more of her work.

It should be noted that characters insult each other with accusations of homosexuality “ass coveter” is a favored slur, but there are no positive examples of sexual diversity. In Wilson’s world there is only sexual and gender polarity.

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