My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Alif the Unseen” completely took me by surprise by how engaging and captivating the story was from beginning to end. I usually enjoy stories that involve sci-fi and suspense/thriller elements with a cultural twist, and I think this first read I’ve had of G. Willow Wilson’s work provided that and even a bit more. The story revolves around a young hacker who calls himself Alif (signifying the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) who creates a unique code that can detect a person’s presence based on their typing patterns and habits. His code gets breached by the government, worse even considering his former lover’s fiance is a leading security official in the Hand, the government body persuing Alif. Alif goes on the run alongside an old childhood friend, and meets a number of colorful characters along the way. The story, collectively speaking, is an interesting smorgasbord of action, journey, sci-fi, religion, philosophical notations in the measure of morality tales, among other aspects. I really enjoyed the blend and found it perhaps one of the most unique, thrilling tales I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
Alif himself is a flawed protagonist who actually grows quite a bit through the journey in the story. He starts out as a hacker, keeping himself under his anonymous handle, and he pines over a woman who is bethrothed to another. When his security is compromised, he goes underground, taking (not by choice) his neighbor and childhood friend Dina. I found Alif likable in spurts, and I could understand some of his frustration and anguish, though there were times when I wanted to tell him to step up to the plate. Thankfully, as his character goes along the journey, he begins stepping up in a big way and comes to terms with what he must do in order to protect the people he cares for as well as his clients. Dina is a fiesty, assertive woman who I loved following through the course of the story. She’s smart, she’s not apt to simply follow what people demand of her, and steps up to take action in many places through the narrative. She’s also very close to her faith and I think that’s interesting considering the contrast it takes to what people in her life expected her to do. She’s someone who stands by her principles and beliefs and doesn’t go down without a fight.
The side/supporting characters of the work were worth following as well. I really enjoyed Abdullah’s hilarious asides in the beginning of the novel, and Vhikram the Vampire (who isn’t a vampire, but not quite human either) was an interesting character, though I didn’t always like some of his commentary.
I definitely liked the blend of themes in this novel: the insight on the Quran text, the cultural expansions and morality stories, the insight on how religion is perceived, among other measures in addition to the technological and thriller aspects of the work. It made it, for me, a read that stands out among its peers, and it didn’t let me go until the end. There’s also a bit of romance in the story, but not from the players you would expect, and it’s developed enough to where one can see the sentiments of the characters well in course of the story.
There are a few qualms that I had in the reading of “Alif the Unseen” though. There are some moments when the narrative slows down and stumbles over its feet a bit, but in the collective consideration of the novel, I don’t think it deterred me from the read on an overarching note. There is also some very strong repeated language through the text, which might bother some for frequency and content – but it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of what the story provided.
Overall, I would recommend “Alif the Unseen” because it was a journey that not only held my attention from beginning to end with its blending of the narrative thematic, but also just how fun the journey was in retrospect.
Overall score: 4/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Grove Press.