“if you can’t pay with things, you could pay with skills,” said Sakina, motioning to the shadow.
“Well, wait a minute,” said Alif, looking from the shadow to Sakina.
“My skills are more or less limited to computers… I’m not sure how much help that is to an, ah, to a…” Effrit, said the shadow. I’m an effrit. And I’ve got a two-year-old Dell desktop in the back that’s had some kind of virus for ages. The screen goes black five minutes after I turn the damn thing on. I have to do a hard reboot every time.
Alif felt new vista of serendipitous opportunity open before him. “You’ve got Internet in the Empty Quarter?” he asked in an awed voice.
Cousin, said the shadow, we’ve got WiFi.“
In a nondescript great city in the Middle-East, stuck between the sea and the desert, between past and modernity, lives a young man of 23, who calls himself Alif. He is a Grey-Hat, one of the anonymous hackers that help people keep some amount of internet freedom for a fee. The state Alif lives in is under the strict control of a state censoring all venues of freedom of speech, especially on the net, where he and his friend’s nemesis is called The Hand, an unknown genius who created a very dangerous and ubiquitous surveillance network. When The Hand finds you, you disappear in state prisons, probably never to see the sun ever again.
But when the story starts, Alif has other things on his mind. Or rather, another person, the elusive Intisar, a fellow minded young woman he met on the net and fell in love with. And Intisar has been silent for some time now, not answering messages and sending Alif in a young lover’s frenzy. When they finally meet again at last, not only will the fallout spur him to create a program that will put everybody he has ever worked to protect in very dire danger, but the arrival of a strange book called The Thousand And One Days, said to have been written by Djinns and sent to him by Intisar will force him to look at the world around him in a totally unexpected way.
Alif the Unseen is beautifully written, the main characters are engaging, well defined and diverse (I didn’t mention Dina, Alif’s neighbour and childhood friend and the unwilling participant in his adventure, Vikram the Vampire, the Convert, Sheik Bilal or NewQarter01 because they are treats better discovered on your own).
Structurally speaking, one thing I found especially well done is that at a juncture where most books would have ended after a well earned climax, it actually plunges back again in another direction, while staying perfectly consistent. It is also a very deft blending of cyberpunk with more classic fairytalesque fantasy. Obviously I liked it. You may like it too.
(This review is part of Cannonball Read 6)