About the Book

Title: Alif the Unseen
Published: 2012
Swoonworthy Scale: 5

Cover Story: Love At First Sight
BFF Charm: Yay and Platinum Edition
Talky Talk: “In The Beginning…” Meets “It’s a Unix System!”
Bonus Factors: Jinn, Radio Sheik, Job
Anti-Bonus Factor: Humans
Relationship Status: Secret Boyfriend

Cover Story: Love At First Sight

This cover! Ahhh! There is nothing I love more than bold color and a good typeface. When the request to review this book came in, Sarah forwarded us the blurb and asked if anyone was interested. Between this cover and the Neil Gaiman endorsement on the back, the email chain quickly devolved into this:

Luckily, yours truly was quickest off the draw. THIS BOOK IS MINE, BISHES! YOU WILL HAVE TO PRY THIS COVER FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS.

The Deal:

In a nameless Middle Eastern state, a hacker going by the name of Alif lives below the radar of government censors, supporting anyone who can pay him: Islamists, communists, and porn providers alike. Half Indian and half Arab, Alif drifts in between cultures and social classes, belonging nowhere in particular. But the censors catch up with him when—what else—a girl gets in the way. Unlike Alif, Intisar comes from old, aristocratic money, and soon, Alif finds himself mixed up in something much more serious than a disapproving father. Suddenly, he is being hunted by the entire state government, armed only with a laptop and a smelly, mysterious book sent to him by Intisar.

BFF Charm: Yay and Platinum Edition

Yay BFF Charm

I like Alif! He’s kind of an imbecile that I want to facepunch 90% of the time, but I know a ton of similarly frustrating dudes, and I like them just the same. He means well, and I trust that he’ll figure his shit out eventually.

BFF platinum charm

But Alif’s neighbor Dina. DINA! I love Dina so much. She is seriously one of the best characters I’ve seen in a long time. Like Alif, you might write her off as a certain type of Middle Eastern stereotype initially. And then you’ll find that there is so much more to Dina than meets the eye. I would save my shiniest, most blinged-out BFF charm for her.

Swoonworthy Scale: 5

This swoon rating would be a lot higher if Alif wasn’t such a dumbass. I don’t want to give too much away plot-wise, so I think the best comparison I can make is to Wade Watts in Ready Player One. Alif, like your stereotypical socially awkward nerd, is kind of a crazy stalker obsessive creeper type. But despite his best efforts, he doesn’t manage to completely kill the swoon in this book.

Talky Talk: “In The Beginning…” Meets “It’s a Unix System!”

On the whole, I really liked the writing in the book. The fantasy world that Wilson creates is based in Islamic theology, something which I personally know very little about but found fascinating to read about. I’m a big theology nerd, so I liked that I kept putting the book down to look up things on the internet. But you definitely don’t need to do that to understand the book; it’s mostly extra credit. The biggest theological questions in relation to the book are always raised by Sheikh Bilal, the imam who accidentally joins this ragtag team of hackers and mythical creatures. They’re right there on the page, waiting to blow your mind:

”You know, I read once that the human mind is incapable of imagining anything that does not exist somewhere, in some form. It seemed a paltry enough truth at the time–I thought, of course it must be so, since in a sense everything we will ever discover or invent has, in the eyes of God, already been discovered and invented, as God is above time. Seeing this, though, I begin to understand how much more profound that statement is. It does not simply mean that man’s innovation is entirely known to God; it means there is no such thing as fiction.”

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I have no idea if I agree with that. I’m not sure I even know what it means. But I do know that I’ve been thinking about it for days.

So that’s how like a quarter of this book goes down. Most of the rest of the book is excitement and running away from things, which I’m down with, because my brain definitely needed a break from all those theological musings. But thennnnn, there’s the hacking parts of the book. They don’t really do it for me.

The most dramatic scenes of the book culminate in Alif sitting down at a computer writing code. Which is pretty dull, to be completely honest. Wilson tries to liven things up with some fantasy speak, and I applaud her effort. Nevertheless, the hacking parts always read a little like this to me

Luckily, there’s not that many, and the rest of the book is so beautifully and richly written that I don’t really care.

Bonus Factor: Jinn

Genie pointing from the cartoon Aladdin

There are genies in this book! No, not that kind of genie. Real genies! I spent a lot of time on wikipedia after this. And let me tell you, If I met a jinn on the street, I would not be trying to lock him in a lamp and force him to grant me wishes. I would be running the hell away.

Bonus Factor: Radio Sheik


Bonus Factor: Job

An open Quran with colourful and ornate pages, on top of a red rug with gold floral patterns

A large part of this book revolves around Alif being uncertain in his beliefs, having everything good taken away from him, wrestling with the devil, and trying to maintain his faith. Sound familiar? Probably not, because I think I’m the only person who has ever read Job voluntarily. But guess what! It’s my favorite book of the bible! Go ahead and make fun of me, you won’t change my mind. It’s fascinating. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read about how Ayyub in the Qur’an differs from Job in the Bible. To the wikipedia!

Anti-bonus Factor: Humans

A large crowd of people walk across a street

Humans ruin everything. We are seriously THE WORST. Half the time I was rooting for the human race to self-destruct and wipe itself out, because no one should allow us to have nice things.

Relationship Status: Secret Boyfriend

Book, I really like you. You’re not my type, but I was captivated by our discussions about religion, and I love the way you tell stories. I’m ready to get serious, but here’s the problem… I think you’d be really awkward around my friends? Like, I really want to introduce you to people, but I don’t know how well that would go over. I’d take you to my theology discussion group, but we always meet at a bar, and you don’t drink. And I’d introduce you to my family–I think maybe my dad would be down with you? But my sister would hate you, and I really value her opinion. So for now, let’s just keep things quiet until I figure out how to pitch you. There are plenty of people out there who would think you’re great, just like me. It’s just that I want everyone I like to like you as much as I do! Is that so selfish?

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Grove/Atlantic. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Alif the Unseen is available now.

Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.