Alif is a young hacker in an unnamed and repressive Arab oil emirate. He lives with his overworked single mom, making a meager living as a freelance coder. He's not political: he sells his skill to democracy activists, Islamic revolutionaries, artists, dissidents, and pornographers alike. He's in love with an aristocratic young woman whose parents have promised her to a prince. He's despised because of his biracial Arab-Indian parentage. All of which sounds pretty crummy, but Alif has managed to carve out an almost-happy life amid pretty sucky circumstances.
And then: everything breaks down.
He's targeted by "The Hand," the government's cybersecurity force, which might be a computer program and might be an actual person... and might be something else entirely. Desperate to help his clients and save himself, he turns to the disreputable gangster Vikram the Vampire (my own favorite character in the book, who is not, in fact, a vampire, but who is not, in fact, entirely human). Vikram takes him underground.
Well, underground might not be the right word for it. Alif and his devout, veiled friend Dina follow Vikram into the Empty Quarter, a strange and secret world that is not so much beneath our own, as beside it. The Empty Quarter is the domain of the jinn - monsters, spirits, genies, and demons. It's familiar - it even has Wifi - but it's also very very strange. And that's when the book gets really interesting.
Shenanigans ensue. Alif is betrayed. He is captured. He is tortured. He is imprisoned. He is liberated, by one of his democracy-activist clients - who happens to be a prince, 27th in line for the throne, who is disgusted by the injustice his privilege is built upon. He goes up against The Hand. He finds love. And his actions just might help catalyze a revolution.
This book is in fact many books. And all of them are wonderful.
It's a science fiction dystopia, and a remarkably fresh one at that (am I the only one tired of futures set in some version of North America, where 90% of the characters are white and speak English?) The fictional world of this story is described in exquisite, gritty detail: it's not real, but it feels real, even to readers who have never actually visited an Islamic country.
It's a nuanced exploration of Islamic mysticism and Arabic folklore.
It's a fantastic riff on the gritty realities of life inside a totalitarian Islamic state on the eve of the Arab Spring.
It's a skilled attempt to update the ancient storytelling of The Arabian Nights.
It's a love story, although not the one we're expecting at the start.
It's scary as hell.
It's full of marvelous, beautiful moments and descriptions and insights - like when Dina tells Alif:
"I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them."
“Those doors are four hundred years old,” said the sheikh in a wistful voice. “The gift of a Qatari prince who passed through the City while on hajj. They are irreplaceable.”
“It’s my fault.” Alif wiped his brow with the back of one trembling hand.
“Yes, that’s true. But. You are likewise irreplaceable.”
Different young men read for different reasons, and Alif the Unseen has something for most of them: compelling characters, fresh and vibrant worlds, gnarly monsters, tech stuff, a tiny bit of sex, and explorations of very different cultures and people.
It's the kind of book that might just change the way someone sees the world.
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