By G. Willow Wilson
Most of the fantasy that I come across is fairly western in viewpoint. This is regardless of world-building, time frame or relative technology. Broad swords are more common than scimitars and katanas. Clothing is far more likely to be based on King Arthur’s court than Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou. This is not a hard and fast rule; Bridge of Birds and 1Q84 spring to mind (both of which you should read), but by and large it’s safe to assume than if you read sci-fi/fantasy, you are also reading from a western mindset.
With that in mind, I was excited to read Alif the Unseen. It’s set somewhere in the Middle East, the jinn are walking about, and technology is about to change the fabric of reality. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, Alif did not live up to my hopes.
The jinn perspective was indeed interesting at first. You quickly learn that the jinn can take multiple forms and that the more you believe in the unseen world, the more you can perceive it. Hence the devout Muslim would see more than the lapsed one, and the imam sees more than the devout. Unbelievers, apparently, can’t see them at all. This could have been a very interesting system for the interactions between the seen and the unseen realms but it’s only used a handful of times. The jinn, I found, were very flat characters. They hardly ever broke out of the stereotypical trickster role we all read in the Arabian Nights as children. When they do, it seems to be a failed experiment.
There is a point in the book spent in jinn country. Rather than be strange and fantastical, it seems to be a rather mundane reflection of our own world. There could have been a lot more to them. This is in the main part because the author wants you to imagine what it’s like but gives you very little to work with. She’d say things had horns or were balls of fur, but wouldn’t really give you any indication beyond that. I like it when authors paint a picture. This was more of a thumbnail sketch; it was enough to get a vague idea of what she was driving at but lacked the richness of a fuller work.
In the same vein, the plot lacked a certain flair as well. Nothing happened that surprised me. I figured out how all this would end by about half way through the book. I like it when the author pulls something out that I wasn’t expecting and that just didn’t happen. It wasn’t a bad plot. It just wasn’t a great one either.
In addition to the jinn, Alif the Unseen is also based around technology. Specifically, computers and computer hacking. The main character is a programmer who works for anyone who wants to hire him (radicals, anti-government groups, feminists, etc). You’d think that with this as the backdrop, there would be a decent amount of discussion on technology. Nope. It’s just simply there and how it works is not a concern. It made me feel that even though Alif is supposed to be a brilliant programmer, he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Not ideal.
All in all, I was underwhelmed by this one. Read it if you like. It’s easy to follow and won’t tax your brain very much so it would be fine for a light read. I didn’t mind this book but I wasn’t impressed either.