Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Edit to begin with: this was supposed to be a post of mini-reviews on three books, but after I had started with "Alif" and had happily typed away three long paragraphs, I realised it's just not going to happen.

This G. Willow Wilson's novel was in this year's Women's Prize longlist and I wouldn't have minded if it had also been in shortlist. "Alif the Unseen" had so much speaking for it: exciting setting, lovely characters, fantastical elements depicted in a realistic world, the theme related to information technology that I find super intriguing: is it possible to create a programme that is able to identify each user's "computer handwriting"? Oh, and there's a map. And a book. And neither of those are a bad thing when it comes to reading a novel.
 I was extremely impressed with the way that author transferred fictional (probably?) online-chats into the text. Bottom line: they are not consistent. The chat may begin with one or both parties starting with proper capitalisation and use of punctuation marks, but as the conversation progresses (and possibly becomes heated/more nervous), people start skipping punctuation and capital letters, and it was attention to these kind of details that I loved finding in this book.
I'll be the first one to admit slight obsession with the jinn. When it comes to mythical/fantastical creatures, I usually maintain my composure. Dragons are nice and I approve their existence in the book-world, but to me they tend to be just characters, like any other. However, it has not been the same regarding the jinn ever since I read Jonathan Stroud's hilarious "Bartimaeus" trilogy, which, I'm afraid, changed my view on jinn forever. I like my jinn to be witty, snarky, moody, curious, passionate and overall patronising towards the "smaller" being - man. But behind all that, I also want the jinn to remain good-hearted, kind of like big brothers towards humans, and this is exactly what I got with Vikram in "Alif". Even though Alif himself and Dina were both very solid for me (as were the side characters), Vikram was the main character for me in this book. 
Alif creates this computer programme, which is able to recognise people behind the screen based on their "handwriting" when they type. I find this extremely intruiging, because already there are things invented like for example "personal" adds, which seem to pop up based on the pages you have visited, or the book recommendations based on the books you have listed you have liked. Alif's programme Tin Sari takes it a step further and it just makes you think once again, where is it that we are heading with all these developments in technology, automation and robots.  
The language is accessible but crisp and fresh, and the dialogue can oftentimes get quite snarky:
"I don't want foreigners involved in my business. Djinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans." /p.114/
"No," said Dina. "We don't burn books."
"Who's we?"
"People with an ounce of brain." /p. 350/
"I know it's common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age when children were polite and you could buy a kilo of meat for pennies, but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. [...] Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore." /p. 366/
I chuckled a lot when reading "Alif" :)
In all, "Alif the Unseen" is a delicious mixture of modern-time Middle East, fantastical creatures, loveable (but not cheesy!) characters, a mysterious book and intriguing questions, all wrapped in good paced and humorous language.  Highly recommended.
427 pages


  1. I'm slightly obsessed with Arabian Nights type mythology too. I haven't heard of the Bartimaeus books, I must read them as soon as possible!

    1. Bartimaeus books are such a light, easy read, and I was laughing constantly (I don't usually laugh easily at books or films :) ) I will definitely re-read at some point, when I purchase them again. Those earlier copies I left for my ex long time ago.

  2. Okay so this sounds AWESOME. I just checked and they have a copy at my library, so I'm going to be checking it out soon. You enthusiasm has me so excited to read it!

    And I seriously need to read the Bartimaeus books. I have the first one on my shelf... maybe I'll sneak it into my reading this month. If not, it is absolutely going on my TBR for next month.

    1. Whoo. Actually my boyfriend is reading it right now, after I recommended Alif to him as a summer read. It has great summery feeling with all the desert environment and locations described.

      And yes Bartimaeus! I read them so long ago I'd actually be so curious to see what other people think of these books :)

  3. I remember getting a copy of this book into the bookshop where I sometimes work, and thinking that the edition was so pretty.

    It does sound like something I'd really like too, despite being quite different to what I normally choose. I think that's a good thing, though :)

    Thanks for the review!

    1. I got this hardcover copy quite accidentally, as I was certain I had ordered a paperback. I am most happy, though, because I definitely want this book on my bookshelf and it is really pretty.

      I think this book isn't even that easy to classify, it's kind of fantasy, but it doesn't feel so out of this world, if you know what I mean... I mainly liked it for characters, but also the writing is so good and the setting isn't too shabby either. And of course, all the dry humour :)

      I also think it's good to grasp for books out of our comfy zone once in a while :)

  4. ohhh... I love this! I am glad you love it too. Something very different.

    JoV at Book Pyramid

    1. It was very different :) I hope my boyfriend will love it too, now, then maybe he will become more open to books different from high fantasy only. I think this is a pretty good bridge-book between fantasy and "proper" (hehehe - self-sarcasm, I love fantasy too) stories.

  5. hi! i followed a link from Sarah Says Read and now I'm a new follower. :-)

    I loved your review of Alif, which is a book I read & reviewed about this time last year. Man, it was one of the most interesting and timely novels I've ever read! LIke you, I very much liked the dialogue and the humor of the novel, and Vikram is definitely one of my favorite characters. I don't know what this book isn't getting more mainstream playtime.

    The author has a blog (sadly not updated often) that is also fun and thought-provoking. Since you loved Alif, I recommend it.

    I'd love to know your thoughts on my review, if you'd care to check it out (sorry I cannot do a small URL thingy):

    1. O hello, fellow Alif-lover :) And thank you for your kind words. I have had the exact same thought - I wish that book was more known, because it's sure to appeal for many different readers. I follow G. Willow Wilson on Twitter, but thanks for the tip - I'll check out her blog too.

      By the way, your blog was one of the first ones I ever started reading back when I didn't even have my own blog yet :)

      I'll go check out your review now.


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