As with ENDANGERED, I think this is a teen book that will resonate best with teens — I liked this one even better. Teachers/ librarians: plenty of stu...moreAs with ENDANGERED, I think this is a teen book that will resonate best with teens — I liked this one even better. Teachers/ librarians: plenty of stuff to talk about with your readers with these books.(less)
Possibly I am biased, because the author (Jackson Pearce writing as J. Nelle Patrick) was sitting across from me in my squashy office chair while she...morePossibly I am biased, because the author (Jackson Pearce writing as J. Nelle Patrick) was sitting across from me in my squashy office chair while she wrote this. I'm fond of both Jackson and that chair.
Possibly I am biased because we brainstormed about this book and The Dream Thieves as we loitered in my kitchen with the 4,000 cups of coffee who died to make both of these books possible.
Possibly I am biased because you always like books you saw being born on your living room floor*.
But it's more possible that I really wanted something historical with a hint of magic; something that didn't feel like an assignment; something with a moose in it.
This is that book.**
*This is unpalatable **Also, if you don't believe me, believe Kirkus, anyway, because they gave it a starred review.
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home ins...moreHow I loved this problematic novel.
I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home instead of flying and so I had the unusual liberty of not caring about whether a book purchase would force me to check my luggage.
Mostly I picked it up because it seemed impossible to summarize. My favorite sorts of books to read and write. The back of the book begins with “In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients — dissidents, Islamists, and other outlaws — from surveillance. He goes by Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him, and Alif’s computer has just been breached by the head of the state’s electronic security fo—“
Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, just stop. Maybe that stuff technically happens in the novel, but that is not the tone of the book, at all. Alif is an impetuous, immature, passionate pig of a computer geek, coding and pimpled in a room in his mother’s house. He throws a massive, electronic tantrum after he’s jilted by Rich Mystery Babe, and the repercussions of the program he writes propel us through the rest of the novel. A couple of reviews call this a thriller, but it’s not, not unless American Gods is a thriller. A couple of reviews call this erudite social commentary, but it’s not unless A Wrinkle in Time is erudite social commentary.
Of course, American Gods is thrilling, and A Wrinkle in Time does indeed comment on society, but that is because they are good fantasy fiction, and good fantasy fiction is full of true things. But they both read like fantasies, and so does Alif the Unseen. If you open the book expecting that, you will not be dissatisfied. Now, because it’s been at least four paragraphs since I did a list, here is a list of four things about Alif the Unseen I think you ought to know.
1. There are so many characters to huggle. Alif is a brat, and I hated him for the first 80 pages, but that’s sort of the point. There are others to love, though: Vikram the yellow-eyed jinn, NewQuarter the endearingly spoiled and heroic prince, and Sheikh Bilal, a holy man with a good mind for a computer metaphor. The character interactions are what ensured my love of this novel. The plot became irrelevant. I just wanted to watch them frolic. 2. There is a car chase in the desert. I don’t know what else to say about this, but if you know anything about me at all, you know it takes very little to please me, and one of the things that will please me is car chases in deserts. 3. It was pretty fantastic to read some contemporary fantasy set in the Middle East, and Wilson did a great job soaking every page with imagery. 4. I really, really liked the way spirituality was worked through the book, touching everything, including the magic, in a very organic way. As someone who believes spirituality and religiosity are not synonyms, I appreciated how Wilson danced between the two. One of the most moving scenes is where a character prays over a meal with little fanfare.
Now it’s time for the problematic part. I have a huge problem with the way women are treated in most of the Middle East. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with equality and choice. I have a huge problem with the way women are portrayed in fiction, period. I knew it could be a very unsatisfying combination, however, I went into Alif with an expectation that Wilson would tread this ground with confidence and insight: after all, Wilson is an American woman who converted to Islam and chose to take up the headscarf. She must have heard everything I was thinking before.
But Alif the Unseen is problematic because it fails to deliver on a single female front. Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, chose to take the veil as well. And she is portrayed as plucky and often less fearful than Alif. Yet she is dragged into adventure and ultimately has to be saved. Another female character appears and does in fact save them . . . by getting mystically pregnant. And a third female character exists as a well of mystical spiritual knowledge. This is their power: they are hidden, they can make more of themselves with magical uterus power, and they, as hidden things, know about other hidden things.
This is an adventure about Alif. The women are accessories. It’s true that Vikram and NewQuarter are accessories, too, but they are unique, proactive, and lovable in a way the women are not (see #1, list of characters that made Maggie love this book). So what I think is problematic about this book is actually a global phenomenon: even women write female characters differently than male characters. Hundreds of years of boy adventurers have left us uncertain how to see a woman in a similar situation. Alif the Unseen is problematic to me not because it actively puts women down, but because it’s yet another novel that subtly and unconsciously reminds us that the boys are the ones who adventure, women are only guardians of home and hearth and mystical knowledge. It’s a novel I would have read as a teen and then closed with a sigh, wishing once more than I had been born lucky — had been born a boy.
But if you put that aside — and women readers have been putting this aside for generations — Alif the Unseen is a fantastic contemporary fantasy. My favorite of the year. (less)
When I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING and...moreWhen I was a small maggot, I read a lot of thrillers. My father would give me his hand-me-down paperbacks, all called things like DEAD MAN RUNNING and POINT BLANK and AGENT ZERO. All featuring manly authors in leather jackets on the back cover, often posing with their dogs, SUVs, or Kalishnikovs.
And I liked them.
I really did. I would speed through them in a day and daydream about car chases. And then I'd go read some Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper fantasies.
It's hard coming back to them as an adult, though. I'm a different sort of reader and I want different sorts of things. I want car chases, but I want to know the characters involved intimately, or I don't care. I want to see the scenery in a different way. I want an impeccably told thriller, and I don't want to hurry through it in a day. I want to be entertained, dammit.
Well, BRILLIANCE entertained me. Sakey draws his protagonist, Nick Cooper, with fond, wry strokes. He's charming and flawed, a divorced family man, a devoted government agent, a dutiful speeder (Cooper. I can't speak for Sakey). The conceit of the novel is excellent, too — in this version of the world, a small but growing population of the world has been born "brilliant," blessed with preternatural pattern recognition or somesuch thing, and the world is on fire with the shock and revolution of it. It makes for some fascinating metaphors — I love me some metaphors — and some laugh out loud moments, such as one page that talks about how the world would look if the brilliants had never come along.
It also makes this a thriller you could take to book club, because it has layers to talk about. You can read it fast or slow and there's something for both of those reads.
What else do I want to say? It's a bit slow in the first third, but I trust that my glowing recommendation will make you overlook that. And it's mostly about pretty people, but I mostly write about pretty people too, so I can't say anything. EVERYONE IS PRETTY ON THE INSIDE, DEAR READER.
Farewell. I'm glad to hear that you've gone off and ordered this. The cover's cool, too. In person it is all tactile. (less)
Before I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors o...moreBefore I say anything else, let me get this out of the way: Jennifer Donnelly, don’t read this.
I know that she might be, because even though authors often say they do not read their reviews, I am an author and have secret knowledge of author-behavior and know that this means that they often do.
This is not a bad review, but I don’t want Jennifer Donnelly to read it because I want one day for us to sit together at a conference and be best friends and talk about dead people, prose, and minor chords. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that, much less something as untidy as her looking at me and thinking of this Goodreads review and hissing “I’ll show you ambitious, Stiefvater.”
So Ms. Donnelly (Jennifer, really, because in the future, we’re friends, or at least fond peers), please stop here.
All right, so I never understood by what reviewers meant by “ambitious.” I assumed it meant the reviewer was a condescending jerk. I hope that is not me. Because I’m going to say it. This is a big, sprawling, ambitious novel that has its eye on a lot of different things. Before I read it, people told me it was a fantasy, and an edgy contemporary about grief, and a historical romance. It is none of those things, but it is some of all of those things. It tells the story of Andi, a present day grieving Brooklyn teen, and it tells the story of Alex, a pyrotechnic teen living during the French revolution, and it also tells the story of a dead prince’s mummified heart, and it also tells the story of a French composer who seems to like both Beethoven and Radiohead, and the story of a rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold.
It’s this book’s ambition that keeps it from being absolutely perfect. It tries for all of those things, and some of those things it nails, and some of them made me make my mouth small. But it’s also its ambition that makes me okay with its imperfection. Because the reason why I have so many things to talk about and pick apart is because it gives me so many things to talk about and pick apart. It’s a glorious thing to pull back the layers. In many ways, I think it’s a great readalong with CODE NAME VERITY — another ambitious book with lots of layers to pick at.
What else do I want to say about this book? Because I want you to pick it up — I want everyone to. I want writers to, because I think it will make them better writers, and I want readers to, because I think it will make them better readers. I want everyone to, so I can have someone to talk about the cleverness of it, right down to the title. I want to talk about how wise it is when it comes to war.
I suppose I will say this, then: stick with it, in the beginning. Andi is in a terrible place, and she is not the easiest person to like. That’s the point. And I’ll say: ignore all the covers. They are all ridiculous and none of them is remotely interesting until after you’re read the book. What else? Probably ignore the cover copy too. It is not that it is a lie — it’s just that it’s untrue. It doesn’t reflect the reading experience at all.
Here, in fact. That’s a good way to end this thing, whatever it is, because it surely isn’t a review. I will finish with the cover copy I would write for this book instead:
Andi Alpers is a sad and terrible person after her younger brother dies. She goes to a snotty school that makes her sadder and more terrible. Her father, who is a geneticist, brings her to France to be sad and terrible there while he analyzes a crusty old French heart to see if it belongs to a sad and terrible French princeling. She finds a happy and glorious old guitar from the revolution, and a sad and terrible journal from selfsame time period, and also meets a happy and glorious rapping taxi driver with a heart of gold. There are kisses, decapitations, house parties where house = catacombs, and a lot of classical guitarists playing a lot of minor chords.
My work here is done. Jennifer Donnelly, are we friends yet? (less)