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Publisher's Summary

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups — from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif — the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind.

The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God”, as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground.

When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.

©2012 G. Willow Wilson (P)2012 Brilliance Audio, Inc.

What listeners say about Alif the Unseen

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

21st Century Arabian Nights

This snappy, issue-aware urban fantasy adventure is the kind of book that Neil Gaiman might have written had he lived in the Middle East. To me, the setting was a breath of fresh air in a genre that could use a little more diversity, and Wilson engages with the intersection between the modern world and the folkloric, spiritual past in a way that has a little more depth and honesty than a typical fantasy novel.

The story, after a prologue set centuries in the past, opens in the present day. Alif, a scrappy, somewhat arrogant young hacker, spends his days helping various dissident and black market groups circumvent the Sauron-like cyber-eye of state security in his unspecified country. When his beautiful upper-class first love jilts him (for reasons that seem particular to that culture), he hits his keyboard and takes petty geek revenge on the young woman. But, like a sorcerer's spell, the program, which may indeed have the mark of otherworldly spirits on its bits and bytes, gets out of control and falls into the wrong hands. The really wrong hands.

However, Alif also manages to acquire an ancient book, that has to do with the lore of the djinn, the supernatural people who still inhabit the world, but are hard to see until one finds true faith. This puts him in touch with some interesting new friends.

The plot, once it unfolds, is a little predictable in its outlines. Of course Alif will eventually fall for the annoyingly devout girl next door. Of course the cantankerous old imam will prove to be a kindly, wise ally. Of course the lore of the djinn will grant Alif superhuman Hollywood hacking powers. Of course the spoiled young prince will find his courage. Of course the bad guy will eventually get his just desserts. But, I liked that these tropes all felt genuinely Middle Eastern in their detail, and had humor. When an Arab Spring-like movement unfolds in the latter part of the novel, Wilson grasps both its hope and its frightening uncertainty.

The novel’s most intriguing ideas, however, feel less than fully developed. I was curious about the author’s vision of Islam as a faith deeper and more sublime than the negative stereotypes most Americans have of it. Conversations that discuss why religious observance matters in an increasingly connected world and how both must transform, consider the relationship between djinn and man (I hadn’t realized that the former were part of the Koran), or explore the power of metaphors in revealing the nature of the universe are interesting. The message felt a little muddled, though, as though the author was trying to find a middle ground between asking questions about faith and promoting her own. Also, speaking as a software developer, let’s just say that the technical aspects of the story rely on a lot of magic realism. Coding and hacking aren’t quite this visual.

Still, I'd rather read a novel that's ambitious and misses a few marks than one that's merely a different coat of paint on familiar ideas. In striving for a synthesis between myth and technology, East and West, tradition and modernity, Wilson manages to both entertain and expand consciousness. That's impressive in a young writer. Audiobook reader Sanjiv Jhaveri provides a wealth of accents and voices, though a few are a little hammy and annoying.

10 people found this helpful

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Unfufilled Promise

This book promises so much and seems to be delivering on it for some time, however, as the story move toward the ending the author seems to lose all steam and the reader is left feeling empty. I cannot recommend it.

4 people found this helpful

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Entertaining and insightul

What did you love best about Alif the Unseen?

Story takes the reader into parts of a culture and land that is unfamiliar, yet exciting. A mixture of religion, culture, technology, and adventure appeals to a wide variety of readers.

Have you listened to any of Sanjiv Jhaveri’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Sanjiv managed to portray different voices for each character. I found this not only entertaining, but useful as a listener.

Any additional comments?

Altogether a great listen that compels me to desire more.

7 people found this helpful

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Something different

I really did enjoy the book, even though it's kind of a new genre for me ... what i liked most about it is that it took me away from everyday life to a new mysterious existence .... it's also challenging in some aspects ... as it did challenge many of my firmly held beliefs ...
one thing i know for sure ... i will never look at a "veiled" woman the same way again ... which is quite cool really

6 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

This Sanjiv Jhaveri Guy...

Honestly, this isn't a bad story. I listened to it during my commute and sometimes while at work. IF (and this is a really big IF) you don't mind the narrarator making the most bizarre and uncharacteristic voices for some of Wilson's characters. It really took me out of the story sometimes. One of the djinn characters had the voice of some creepy rapist/pedophile. Even though he's one of the best written characters, I just couldn't handle it. Obviously written by a man, because every time the boy protagonist meets a new woman character, he is always "uncomfortable" at the way that they look him up and down. I appreciated some of the imagery, having grown up on the Arabian Peninsula myself. Accurately described social dynamics. If you can get past the weird performance, as well as all of the pseudo-mysticism (it's like he forgets about it sometimes), then you might enjoy this.

13 people found this helpful

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Nicely done

Not a fan of fantasy, religion, romance, or books written for or about young people, but managed to enjoy this nonetheless. Guess the author was pretty good, and the narration was spot on, or maybe I was just in the mood for something different, Or maybe it's my appreciation of computers and the Internet as useful tools, though the idea that anyone could program up a jinn or two is way off somewhere. Wilson has a wild imagination.

2 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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What a Disappointment

The premise of the story is good. The execution is not. I listened to this book at 1.5 speed and it still seemed to drag. I kept checking to see how close I was to finishing it. It was a book club pick (not mine) or I would have abandoned the book early on.

1 person found this helpful

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Couldn’t finish.

Got bored with this one. I did not get even halfway though and couldn’t get any further.

1 person found this helpful

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Disappointing

Promises to be a great story at the beginning but quickly becomes repetitive and grating. At least the insight into cultural nuances is interesting.

1 person found this helpful

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Cute and entertaining eastern tech adventure

Entertaining, if not particularly deep techno adventure.

Interesting mix of plausible hacktivism and djinn based Middle Eastern superstition. Plausible escapism. Decent characterisation. A fun romp through the Middle East and it's censorship and it's mythology

1 person found this helpful