9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A solid story,
This review is from: Alif the Unseen (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I wasn't bowled over by this book, but I am certainly glad I read it. You don't come across a fantasy set in the contemporary Middle East every day. My closest point of reference for it, apart from American Gods - which I didn't really feel echoes of, despite what's been said - is Jonathan's Stroud 'Bartimaeus' books. I wonder if it did make me expect a little too much of 'Alif The Unseen'; there was never quite enough of the djinn world, nor the djinns/other assorted supernatural creatures themselves.
Character-wise, the main protagonist paled in comparison to others (Vikram the Vampire, Dina and the old sheik to be precise). Of course, protagonists always need plenty of room to develop, to win us over, but there is a balance to be struck. With so much of the plot pivoting on Alif's mistakes, it got a little frustrating. The plot itself could have done with some work too. More than one tight situation is solved by the timely appearance of some form of unexpected rescue. One could answer that with so much faith and religion involved in the story, the divine hand had a part to play - but it's still a bit lazy!
So, the setting: as I've said before, it's unusual. But I felt a little hard-done by when I discovered that the story is set in a fictional Middle Eastern city rather than an existing one. World-building is not G. Willow Wilson's focus, so the city always felt half-sketched. It is demarcated, quite simply, into the 'New Quarter' and the 'Old Quarter'. I can understand and even agree with the vagueness of the 'Unseen' world, but I wish the human world had felt more solid. I suppose it saved the author a lot of research, but I would have loved to see the story wrapped around the walls of an already-existing place. Fantasy can be truly delicious when it weaves the real and the unreal together properly.
G. Willow Wilson is much better at bringing together two concepts which seem at first to be at complete odds - that of literature and computing (though I won't elaborate more lest I reveal too much). I did find the cyberpunk element hard to conceptualise in my head while reading it, but I had the same problem with William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' so it's more me than the author I'd say. Lazy plotting aside, I can't criticise the author for this part of the story.
Overall, I think I would read a sequel to this book. I would love to read more of the Unseen world and its djinn inhabitants (ideally with a liberal smattering of Bartimaeus-style sarkiness). The reason I decided to give it 3 stars rather than 4 (though I would've given it 3.5 if Amazon allowed this) was because I didn't find it enormously compelling. Sure, I looked forward to reading it, but I was never feverish about it, and certain parts really dragged while others zipped along. A flawed novel, but an entertaining one all the same!