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Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen - G. Willow Wilson G. Willow Wilson knows how to write a sentence. The prose here is lovely (I was particularly caught by one simile describing a windowless prison as "both surreal and alarmingly ordinary, like an office building that had blinked"), and her descriptions of life in the modern Middle East are compelling and incisive. What she doesn't seem to know is how to plot a novel.

Alif the Unseen is several components jumbled together--a thriller about political revolution in an unnamed Middle Eastern city-state, a meditation on Islam, a cyberpunk story about hacking and debugging, and a fairy tale of jinns and other spirits. I use "fairy tale" rather than fantasy for a reason: as in a fairy tale, helpful creatures just keep turning up along every step of the protagonist's way, share their aid or knowledge, and then move on. There's little logic to these encounters or depth to the creatures' characterizations; they exist because the plot requires them and vanish once it no longer does.

That's fine for a fairy tale, which doesn't require realism. I can even enjoy a good fairy tale expanded to novel length (ala [b:Bridge of Birds|15177|Bridge of Birds A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was|Barry Hughart|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327940289s/15177.jpg|958087]). But it mixes very poorly with the political and technological aspects of the novel, which are grounded in vivid descriptions of violent oppression and quantified computer specs. Alif is a real person with real problems; those problems deserve real solutions, not coincidence and deus ex machina again and again.

Alif the Unseen also contains one of the most blatant authorial inserts I've seen in or out of fanfiction (the only other one that comes close is Mercedes Lackey's "Myste"). "The convert" (unnamed) is a young, blonde American woman who came to the Middle East while in college, converted, and now wears a head-scarf. Sound familiar? It should, if you've read any of Wilson's biography or journalism. I initially thought the convert was no more than a quick authorial wink, but far from being a cameo she keeps turning up and lecturing the characters (and reader) about the nature of Islam and the divide between West and East. I prefer my fourth wall more unbroken and authorial opinions shown, not told. And the reactions of the initially dismissive other characters toward the convert by the end of the novel--as they are gradually won over by the genuineness of her faith--made me roll my eyes. This, ladies and gentleman, is the definition of a Mary Sue. In the end, the convert marries one of the jinn, has amazing sex with him, and helps protect the protagonists through her special connection with the magical world.

So what's to like? The pacing is almost fast enough to disguise that it's one random encounter after another, and there are some very good sections when the book leaves the unseen world behind--most notably the opening, describing Alif's daily life, as well as Alif's time hiding in the mosque with Sheikh Bilal and the prison sequence. Even the unseen world occasionally gave me a few laughs with its descriptions of jinn trying (and sometimes failing) to mesh with modernity. If this were cut down to 250 pages, it could be a good light adventure novel. As it is, it's a doorstopper tome that can't support the deeper points it tries to make.