Rating 4 Stars/Grade A
*Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book*
Have you ever traveled to another country or place with a different culture and wanted to be more than just an observer? More than just a tourist? When I travel, I have this mindset that I want to go and take in, not judge or compare and not think — oh in the US we would do this. I want to just be and try to pretend I am a local. This is really hard to do, but I try to challenge myself to do this. In the fantasy and urban fantasy genre, there are not many books that take place in what we call the “middle east” and there are even fewer books where the protagonists are Muslim. There are some authors beginning to write fantasy and urban fantasy books set in non-Western settings. But the western setting or western characters are definitely the majority. Alif the Unseen is a book in which the reader is allowed to travel to a an unnamed and fictionally created Middle East city/country and be a local; Alif allows the reader to exist and act and not judge or compare. The main characters are residents of the fictional middle eastern city and thus the story and the world are seen through their eyes, not the eyes of a Western tourist. Alif the Unseen was an experience, it was definitely a great read but it was more than just a read.
Computers and the internet are huge factors in our modern world, but the idea of the computer and the internet playing a key role in the fantasy aspect of book is virtually untouched in fantasy and urban fantasy books. Some have touched on it tangentially, for example the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant where the characters are bloggers. But what I mean, is that where the computer and the internet are components of the world building or perhaps characters on their own — Ready Player One of course comes to mind as an example of this. Ms. Wilson’s book takes the computer and internet world and fashions it into part of the world building in her fantasy setting.
Alif the Unseen is an adventure and self-discovery tale, as so many fantasy stories are. It is set in a modern world, where computers, the internet and cell phones play a part. But woven in to the tale, are elements of arabic mythology of jinn, shape shifters, demons, vampires, and alternate worlds that exist just on the other side of the air we breathe.
The richness of Alif the Unseen is in the descriptions of clothes, food and social interactions. Social mores and customs are mentioned, but not overtly criticized it is just a matter of fact expression of how life is. Underlying the story is a very subtle criticism of racism, xenophobia, classism, monarchies, powerful and censoring governments, religious judgment and condemnation, and gender discrimination. Ms. Wilson, though, doesn’t present these criticisms as a polemic but more as characters reacting to situations and unfairnesses that they experience. And remember, the readers are there not as Western tourists, but as a local who lives there and is an active participant in the culture. Faith and belief are a key part of this story. The characters are believers and their faith gives them strength and courage. I do admit that expressions of faith make me uncomfortable, but in the end Alif the Unseen is not preaching but expressing.
For awhile now, I have been interested in the push of ideas and the gentle rub of potential change in the Middle East driven by young people, Alif the Unseen touches on this very interesting topic — a subtle revolution and resistance taking place on the internet. If you crave romance, there is a very sweet romance and references to sexuality while not overt they are obvious. Alif the Unseen is not perfect, but few books are. There are slow parts to this book, parts that I wish were edited out. But overall it is a great read and I highly recommend it.I recommend Alif the Unseen to anyone who enjoys fantasy, urban fantasy, computer based adventure, fairy tales and/or stories about young people trying to make things better.
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