Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


I purchased my own copy of Annihilation and was in no way compensated for this review.