Review: Alif the Unseen

Thank you Netgalley and Grove Press for the opportunity to read Alif the Unseen before the July 2012 release!  I have to confess that this is not the type of book that I typically pick up.  The story is an unbridled mesh of technology, fantasy, religion, revolution, and romance.  In other words, it’s a bit of a wild ride, with characters that range from a 23-year old self-proclaimed computer geek, to shadowy demons that materialize at the worst possible moments.

The story takes place in a Middle Eastern State.  Your unwitting hero is Alif, a young Arab-Indian who lives with his mother (Alif is not his given name, but rather is his handle.)  Thanks to his technological prowess, he makes his income by creating hacker shields for a long list of clients, who include everyone from revolutionaries to Islamists.  In other words, he keeps his clients hidden within the online spectrum, so the oppressive State Security cannot find them.  They may blog as they wish.  In a world where speaking critically of your government will land you in prison (or murdered), anonymity becomes invaluable.

… Alif foresaw disaster in this new wave of regional monitoring.  Hacked accounts were only the first step.  Inevitably, the censors would move on to hack lives.

Trouble brews pretty quickly for Alif, when he discovers that his lover’s new fiancé is the head of the security system that is bent on destroying him.  The manhunt drives Alif underground, and he takes his neighbor and childhood friend Dina with him.  For their plight, they somehow manage to enlist the help of century-old creatures from a world that is unseen by most humans.  (Some creatures are half man/half animal, some are mere shadows, while others are full-fledged demons, capable of scaring the wits out of just about anyone.)  What is fascinating about these characters is that in an oppressive society, their humanity often shines brighter than their human counterparts.  Their faith in history, their loyalty to religion, and their unblinking philosophical views really strike a chord.

I loved reading the dialogue in this book.  It was sharp, witty, and real.  The banter between the characters caught me off guard more than once, and at times, I found myself laughing out loud.

Alif’s adventure will definitely keep your pages turning.  Will he finally write enough code to get himself and his friends to safety?  Will he finally get “The Hand?”  (State Security’s sprawling online presence.)  Will he be brave enough to do what is necessary, now that he’s forced out of his unseen online world?

Even if you aren’t normally drawn to hacker stories, fantasy books, or religious undertones, I still think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Alif the Unseen.  It’s an immensely entertaining read, and I promise that you’ll never look at your computer the same way again.  😉

4 stars.