Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen - Alif the Unseen has a fantastic premise -- in more ways than one. A computer hacker in the Middle East discovers that jinn are real. This means that we get exposed to not just one culture, but two. We receive a complete immersion in Middle Eastern realities of life, alongside a supernatural world that on the surface feels quite compelling.The concept is great! Computer hacker in the Middle East discovers that jinn are real, and an ancient book contains a way of writing a new type of code. Great concept. Great book cover.There are some disappointments ahead though, for the avid reader. I found the Middle Eastern component fascinating and spot-on. What's really unusual, and wonderful about the world that the author paints is that he focuses his novel on the dispossessed and on-the-fringes part of Arabic culture today. Imported workers, and their children compose a huge percentage of the population -- and the working adults -- in many of the "oil rich" Gulf countries, but their stories are often overlooked. That is definitely not true in this novel. Kudos for painting a picture of a complex and multicultural Arabic / Muslim world, replete with prejudices, cultural frisson, and misunderstandings. The only American in the novel is a bit of a bumbling idiot, which is a nice change. However, I was sorely disappointed in the supernatural aspect. What is up with authors who are writing otherworldly or supernatural stories that don't have a basic familiarity with how it's been done for years in the fantastical literature field? Even Salman Rushdie did obvious unoriginal work in his book "Haroun & the Sea of Stories," because he wasn't familiar with the basic works of writers like Phillip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King and Garth Nix. I mean, c'mon, learn from the folks who have been writing supernatural fiction for a long time. To start with, the jinn in the classic story "Mischief in Fez" (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2492259.Mischief_in_Fez) have a lot more intrigue to them, a lot more danger, and a hell of a lot more of the supernatural about them. So I'm sad to say that the jinn aspect in Alif the Unseen had a bit of a paint-by-numbers aspect to it. This is -- and I'm trying to be generous here -- because I'm assuming the novelist simply hasn't read enough of similarly-themed genre books. I'm assuming they are actually an original writers, with good idea,s and they just don't know that their "wholly original" ideas have been done to death already. Otherworldly alley with strange characters in it? Check. Jinn who act like disreputable back-alley drug dealers instead of actually supernatural? Check. Jinn who look human, except their legs go the wrong way? Check. (See the Ritual and every other novel in that genre)And the description of how code is written, and how the ancient book is used to craft a new kind of code was sadly reliant on metaphor, and on descriptions of writing code that are just wildly out of line with reality or even supernatural believability. If you have a hacker writing code, please ensure that when he starts going in really cool directions, he's not entering some virtual reality world. That's been done -- to death -- in Lawnmower Man, etc. Again, just read a ton of Stephen King, and learn what's not original, and you'll be fine.Finally, the pacing and the revealing of the love interest was boring and obvious. At least plant some signals early on that our main character (Alif) SHOULD be in love with the person he ends up with at the end of the book. It's both trite, and non-intuitive. Doesn't work. So, if you've gotten to the end of this review, you're probably wondering why I'm so harsh on Alif the Unseen. It's because I had such very, very high hopes for this novel. Great concept! Great ideas! And furthermore, I like books that feel "realistic" in their pacing and their believability. I want a book that feels like "history", but happens to have the fantastic and the supernatural at the core.Three examples come to mind as the GREATEST books I've ever read in this genre. If you don't like these three books, then my review (above) probably won't have as much relevance or pertinence for your reading of "Alif the Unseen."DECLARE by Tim Powers (won the Hugo) is a brilliant book about Middle Eastern djinn, the Cold War, and the "supernatural" backstory of real-life British spy Kim Philby. Real history is woven around a really incredible supernatural story about World War II and events that followed in Russia and the Middle East. I highly recommend it. Makes you believe! JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL is a wonderful Jane Austen-like story of magic in England in the 18th century. What's marvelous about it is that magic is both easy and incredibly difficult. It's not something to be trifled with, yet it is -- those who take it for granted, pay dearly. Those who treat it with contempt run into all sorts of class and privilege issues. Quote for the ages: "“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” And I've had the privilege of reading Nick Hallum's forthcoming novel WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS, which is a re-telling of 9-11 and the events of 2001-2010 (War on Terror, etc.) from the point of view of a backstage NSA spy who knows the real story about djinn and the Middle East and skyscrapers (it's hard to explain), and again, weaves real life history into a supernatural story that is quite compelling. He hasn't published it yet... http://nickhallum.com