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.
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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.
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