Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

After reading a number of possibly orientalist fantasy stories, I was looking forward to reading "a Golden Compass for the Arab Spring," as one blurb has it.  However, Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, reminds me less of The Golden Compass and more of The Historian.

For one thing, the characters aren't children: Alif is a twenty-something computer programmer who works out of his mom's apartment and Intisara is the princess-like bride-to-be of a wealthy man in the Middle Eastern government. 

For another thing, the plot of the fantasy story takes us from booksellers to libraries to mosques.  Although there are some fight scenes, the story is mostly developed through conversations with various experts. 

At this point, you've probably realized there's a book involved: Alf Yeom, a collection of Jinn folktales that the repressive government censors want to get their hands on for nefarious reasons. Intisara passes this book off to Alif and soon he's on the run with nothing but his programming skills and a childhood friend to help him.

::Alif vs. Cairo

I loved G. Willow Wilson's Cairo, so I was predisposed to like this book, but also to compare it to its predecessor.  I think that Wilson's graphic novel works better than her novel is because in Cairo, the artist renders the action scenes and mythical creatures more effectively than Wilson describes them.

What Wilson seems most interested in is not action scenes but ideas: ideas about metaphors, belief, religion, and fiction.  At one moment in the story, while rabid Jinn are attacking the mosque where Alif is hiding, the Sheikh tries to lead a discussion on this question:
"when one is playing a video game and his avatar consumes a piece of digital pork, has a sin been committed?"
Although even the characters treat this as an irritating distraction from the problem at hand, it's obvious that the author doesn't believe it's a distraction--especially when she brings it up again later:  The same Sheikh laments that "if a video game does more to fulfill a young person that the words of prophesy, it means people like me have failed in a rather spectacular scale" (332).

For the most part, I found Wilson's ideas really interesting, too*.  But I didn't always find her plot interesting--partly because the reader is always following Alif around, and I would have liked to follow the women around at least part of the time--particularly when they were off having sexual escapades with Jinn. 

I also thought that while the real world was rendered with a clear and critical eye, the fantasy world of the Jinn was less compelling.  Admittedly, the place is supposed to be sort of rundown, but it just didn't feel endless and magical. Also, note to editor: I would have loved a glossary. 

Now, as I'm making these somewhat half-hearted criticisms, I'm also realizing that while Wilson's novel may not check all my boxes, is does have the characters do a remarkable number of things on this list

So perhaps I should pause to enumerate the good things about this book: the stories-within-stories are captivating, the book that everyone is chasing is totally worth the chase (not a MacGuffin), there's a lot of variety in the female characters, the romantic subplot is deliciously satisfying, and the scenes in which Alif battles demons using programming language are surprisingly convincing.  Also, it's an example of a fantasy novel that doesn't pit technology against magic.  Hooray!  

::Read it?

Yes, of course.  Just don't read it right after reading The Golden Compass or anything, because the plot and setting aren't quite as vivid, nor is there the sense of impending doom.  Also, be prepared for scenes in which people recite prayers to drive back demons.  I was fully prepared, having read a lot of C.S. Lewis and Frank E. Peretti as a teen.  (Frank E. Peretti, anyone?)  Also, read the other things G. Willow Wilson has written, and read her next book.

ETA: I just read the NYT review, and I don't know why the reviewer is flummoxed about what to call this book: "Is it literary fiction? A fantasy novel? A dystopian techno-thriller? An exemplar of Islamic mysticism, with ties to the work of the Sufi poets?"  It's a fantasy, because (surprise!) a fantasy can be literary, dystopian, technological, and mystical.  I hate it when people are reluctant to admit that a good novel is a genre novel.  

*Particularly her idea that religion validates fantasy--that there is in fact no such thing as fiction if "the human mind is incapable of imagining anything that does not exist somewhere, in some form" (333) and that it's hypocritical for people to read religious texts literally but not believe in "fantasy" creatures like demons, angels, jinns, and monsters.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, this sounds like a really cool book. The Arab setting + hacker theme really intrigues me. Thanks for the review!