Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012
review by Tessa
Alif – teenage hacker, selling online anonymity to the highest bidder
The Hand – whatever mysterious part of the semi-dictatorial/monarchical government that wants to destroy the hackers and gain control of everyone’s secrets and therefore lives
Intisar – rich Arab girl who knows a little too much about ancient secrets (also is sort of stringing Alif along even though she’s arranged to be married)
Dina – Alif’s serious & smart neighbor & friend since childhood, pulled inadvertently into the political turbulence caused by his chosen profession.
Vikram – an out of this world underworld contact who sees fit to help Alif and not eat him, thankfully
Alif’s life is falling apart a little. The government’s men in black have found an advisor who actually knows what (s)he’s doing and all the best hackers are being shut down. It’s the worst possible moment for Alif, as his one true love totally broke his heart, then sent him a really old book called The Thousand and One Days that makes the Hand’s pursuit of him even more frantic. He’s got to find out how it all connects before he loses his mind or dies or a little of both.
Alif’s world is never named, but it is populated with Muslims and Hindus and full of references to the class differences between Arabs and Indians and how Alif can’t get anywhere because he’s half one and half the other. The reader can feel free to assume that it’s a fictionalized version of a general Middle East – it’s only described as “The Persian Gulf” — with all the political unrest and religious and cultural heritage that implies.
One of the things I loved about reading Alif the Unseen was how the world was immediately itself but never explicitly named, which gave it a real world grounding with a sheen of fairy tale. The prologue opens the story in ancient Persia, with a conversation between a jinn and a manuscript writer, full of dankness and mysticism loaded with real dirt and organic necessity:
“‘Why?’ Reza had asked the creature desperately. ‘Why won’t you let him see you?’
In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.
. . . The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever.”
After introducing the fact of the jinn, the book moves into the present, from one chalk word that traps a jinn so that it will have to come back night after night to tell its stories, to a device that can send as many words as one likes out into the world and never guarantee a response. A reality grounded with a smartphone set up with a bypass of the “encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages [Alif] had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All were unanswered.”
Wilson smartly builds her world so that it doesn’t have to explain itself. Dina knocks on Alif’s wall in an Arabic message – the Arabic script shows up within the text matter of factly and without footnote. The reader is never told what “praying maghrib” means, what a chaiwalla is (though we can guess) or what article of clothing a thobe could be, in that annoying way that authors can insert a word in another language and immediately translate it, as if that’s how code-switching people speak, for the benefit of invisible readers watching their lives unfold. The references are part of Alif’s life, and he doesn’t have to explain them to himself. The reader can decide whether to look it up – it’s not there to make the narrative more “exotic”, it’s there because it’s his reality.
When Alif is thrown into the knowledge that his world and the world of the jinn both exist, it’s pretty rad. Pret-ty rad.
What is the book’s intention? Does it achieve that intention?
The back of my copy of Alif the Unseen (it’s an ARC, okay, so check the real thing out and make sure I quoted everything correctly) calls it “cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology”. Well, copywriter, I don’t know about “cyberpunk”. That puts me in mind of Billy Idol.
Alif combines a tense chase-based plot set in a society rife with baddie government spies and underground freedom fighters. I’m glad that Wilson chose Alif as her protagonist – he’s a smart teenager with the misguided idealism of neutrality – he doesn’t care who uses his skills as long as they pay him. He’s young and inexperienced enough that I can laugh at this line of his and still believe it would really come out of his mouth:
“‘You can’t marry this chode,’ he said hoarsely, ‘You’re my wife in the eyes of God if no one else.’”
Don’t judge the book by that line, by the way – it’s an example of good characterization through embarrassing dialogue.
So instead of a spy thriller set in the oh-so-trendy Arab Spring or an updated Kite Runner-esque allegorical knockoff, we get something so much better. A story with a conflicted narrator I can believe in, who has a real friendship with a real girl who lives a life according to religious beliefs that are portrayed in a real way, with respect but also through Alif’s slightly cynical teenage eye. You can feel the years of friendship between Alif and Dina, and the ways that they have put the armor of stereotypes on each other as they grew up and a little apart, but how they can’t ever really believe that armor. Alif lends Dina his fantasy novels (Philip Pullman!) and chats with her on his roof, and I could feel the comfortableness between them, and also the tiredness that had already sprung up from knowing where they were bound to go in life.
It’s Alif’s involvement with the studious, beautiful, and ultimately fickle Intisar that changes those courses, and sets them off through the city and into the blurred borderlands between worlds. Along the way there’s a seriously ridiculous hacking scene that deserves top billing with the stuff that goes on in the classic movie Hackers, or even Lawnmower Man. It’s forgiveable, because the rest of what Wilson writes is nimble and exciting. She argues culture and political morality through the reality of her characters and their world – sure, at a couple points the fabric of the story wears through a little and we see the bare philosophical points sticking through, but mostly I’d say that you’re in for a fun and substantial reading experience, one that’s probably unlike most of the other books published this year.
I wrote this review referencing an Advance Reading Copy, so any mistakes in quotation are mine, and you should buy a copy of the real book or get one from your library today.
Isn’t G. Willow Wilson a really cool name?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor – similar mix of fun and meaty story with Issues Underlying, and the whole World Beyond This One
Posted by tessabarber on October 26, 2012
Review of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2011
By REBECCA, August 3, 2012
Puck Connolly: Lives with her brothers and loves Thisby Island with her whole heart
Dove: Puck’s underfed farm horse, nota capall uisce like the rest of the Scorpio Racers’ mounts
Sean Kendrick: 19 year-old horse trainer who just wants peace and the space to train his own horses
Corr: Sean’s best friend, a capall uisce owned by his boss
Finn Connolly: Puck’s brother, sensitive and hopeful
Gabe Connolly: Puck’s older brother, who threatens to leave the island
Every November, on the shores of Thisby Island, men race the wild horses that rise up from the toiling waters—only one man may win, but many may die, bloodied and broken by their mounts, or dragged under the water with them, unable to resist their otherworldly call. Sean Kendrick is the returning champion of the Scorpio Races, and there is every reason to believe he’ll win again this year. Until something unthinkable happens on Thisby Island: Puck Connolly enters the race—the first woman ever to do so—and although they barely know each other, she and Sean are soon forced to sacrifice everything to pursue the one thing they each desire.
First, a confession: I read The Scorpio Races nearly five months ago and I have avoided writing about it because I loved the book so much that I knew no review I wrote could express my feelings about it. But, in case there are people who haven’t gotten around to reading The Scorpio Races yet, I feel so strongly that you should deny yourself the great pleasure no longer that I’m sucking it up and slapping together what I hope will be a review not quite so tear-sodden as the library copy of the book I read (apologies, Free Library of Philadelphia patrons: I cried my face off on that book).
Ahem. Now, then. I read Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver a few years ago and although I liked the concept and thought the prose was lovely, the story wasn’t really my speed, and I lost steam about halfway through the sequel. I love beautiful prose, though, so when I heard Maggie Steifvater had a new book out—about bloodthirsty water horses, no less—I was really eager to see what this lovely prose stylist did with a story that was a bit more up my alley. My word!: even in the first few pages I was completely captivated by the prose and sucked into the amazing world of Thisby Island.
To put it clearly: The Scorpio Races is simply one of the finest examples of world-building I’ve read. Stiefvater’s touch is subtle and effortless as she evokes what read like only the relevant pieces of a capacious other world. This is fantasy at its finest: I felt as if I were reading a piece of historical fiction about real people who lived in a world slightly different than my own. Thisby Island has its own history and traditions; its own social mores and superstitions (though Stiefvater draws on Scottish and Irish legends of the capaill uisce—flesh-eating horses that come from the sea during storms).
I loved the way I felt dropped into the middle of it all. In the hands of a less talented storyteller, it could have felt info-dumpy, but Stiefvater simply writes as if we are all familiar with the place and time in which the story takes place, doling out details as we need them and allowing the context to reveal them slowly when we don’t (for example, rather than informing the reader that capall uisce is the singular of capaill uisce, Stiefvater simply uses each where it is appropriate, her very vocabulary enfolding us in this other world). And, oh, what a world.
“I am dreaming of the sea when they wake me.
Actually, I am dreaming of the night that I caught Corr, but I can hear the sea in my dream. There is an old wives’ tale that capaill uisce caught at night are faster and stronger, and so it is three in the morning and I am crouching on a boulder at the base of the cliffs, several hundred feet from the sand beach. Above me, the sea has made an arch in the chalk, the ceiling a hundred feet over my head, and the white walls hug me. It should be dark, hidden from the moon, but the ocean reflects light off the pale rock, and I can see just well enough not to stumble on the coarse, kelp-covered rocks on the floor. The stone beneath my feet has more in common with the seafloor than the shore, and I have to take care not to lose my footing on the slippery surface.
I am listening.
In the dark, in the cold, I am listening for a change in the sound of the ocean. The water is rising, quickly and silently; the tide is coming in, and in an hour, this incomplete cave will be full of seawater higher than my head. I am listening for he sound of a splash, for the rush of a hoof breaking the surface, for any hint that a capall uisce is emerging. Because by the time you hear a hoof click on the stones, you are dead” (27-28).
I won’t say much about Sean or Puck, except that they are exactly the kind of characters I love to read about: complex characters with material, emotional, and economic needs, desires, and challenges who are flawed but honorable. Also, it’s no secret that I love obsessoids and monomaniacs. Although neither Sean nor Puck reach an Ahabian level of monomania, its waves certainly lap at their feet.
what are this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?
I’ve read several reviews of The Scorpio Races that note two things that are, for me related: first, that the book feels really different from other YA fantasy that’s out there, and two, that the pacing is slow. Second thing first, for me, the pacing was perfect: I was sucked in by the details of the world and the incredibly interesting characters and beautiful prose for the first half of the book, and then sucked in by the excitement and suspense and drama for the second half (then I was reduced to pathetic, weeping, pile of tears at the end; but more about that later). I think the pacing (which I would call measured, rather than slow) contributes to The Scorpio Races feeling like a different kind of book.
I think also, though, that Stiefvater’s treatment of her characters’ desires is a large part of why The Scorpio Races feels different from many other YA novels. To wit: Puck and Sean are characters who have to work hard for their own survival and to support the people (and horses) they love. This means that they are much more focused on practical matters than many YA characters, and that there is little emphasis on friends or the trappings of school-bases sociality. What Sean desires more than anything else is for his capall uisce, Corr, to belong to him instead of to his boss. What Puck desires is to keep her family together.
What this means, above all else, is that The Scorpio Races isn’t a romance (in the genre sense of the term). Puck and Sean’s developing relationship is beautiful and deftly wrought, but it is not Romantic. Their bond is one of necessity and mutual determination—a restrained and clutching need, not a dreamy or lustful desire. In this way, Puck and Sean seem more like a tough old ranching couple than any kind of star-crossed lovers. And it’s stunning to see a teen relationship portrayed that way.
“Sean Kendrick opens the door.
He looks at me.
I look at him.
This close, he’s almost too severe to be handsome: sharp-edged cheekbones and razor-edge nose and dark eyebrows. His hands are bruised and torn from his time with the capaill uisce. Like the fishermen on the island, his eyes are permanently narrowed against the sun and the sea. He looks like a wild animal. Not a friendly one” (137)
As is now nearly a given with successful YA novels, The Scorpio Races has been optioned for a film by KatzSmith Productions, so that Hollywood can squeeze every last ha’penny out of young adults’ allowances (and, of course, my paltry wallet). Let’s hope they don’t completely f-ing ruin it by, among other things, turning it into an insta-love smooch-fest.
I finished The Scorpio Races on a plane. I was sitting in the window seat and a middle-aged woman sat next to me. Despite the fact that I always confess to crying on trains while reading, I am so not a public crier—and usually when crying at books on trains a discreet tear will slip from under my sunglasses and glisten unnoticed in the sunlight. While reading The Scorpio Races on the plane, six inches from a total stranger, I was crying so hard that tears were streaming down my face and I turned around 90 degrees so that my back was to my seatmate and I was facing the window shade. But I could not stop reading. I was all, “hey, Rebecca, just put the book away and save the last 50 pages for when you get home because otherwise this woman is going to call a flight attendant to have you sedated; there’s a good girl.” But I didn’t listen. It was like the other people on the plane didn’t even exist.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (2011). Daughter of Smoke and Bone is another rich, dark book that sinks the reader right into another world. Tessa and I have discussed its highs (Prague!) and its lows (angels!) at greater length here, here, and here (with bonus Viggo Mortensen)!
Ghost Medicine by Andrew Smith (2008). No, I didn’t just pick this as a readalike because it has horses. Still, though, I’m not sure—not having grown up around horses myself—but it does seem as though horses inspire a certain kind of . . . reverent tone when written about by awesome prose stylists. A beautiful book about friendship, nature, and the things we value by the inimitable Andrew Smith.
Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton (1988). Ok, fine, this one I picked kind of just because of the horses. I love S.E. Hinton! No, but, Travis moves out of the city to live with his uncle, who owns a horse ranch. He is captivated by the horses, though he knows nothing about them, particularly Star Runner, a beast who seems more alien than earthly being. And the girl who rides Star Runner is like no one Travis has ever know.
Procured from: the library, but then I loved it so much that I bought it
Posted by Rebecca on August 3, 2012
A review of Elsewhere (Borderlands #1) by Will Shetterly
By REBECCA, Friday, March 23
Just Ron: Newly arrived in Bordertown, Ron has some growing up to do, but a good heart
Mooner: Half-elf and ersatz leader of Castle Pup, he’s charisma + recklessness + pride
Wiseguy: Mooner’s twin, she’s a badass and a fierce defender of Castle Pup
Florida: Mysterious little girl who just showed up one day . . .
Mickey: Human owner of Elsewhere bookstore, she ushers Ron into life in Bordertown
Goldy: Co-worker at Elsewhere and crusader for love through books
A Few of the Crew at Castle Pup . . .
Leda: Dreamy elf addicted to peca, the Dragon’s Milk, she also has a royal pedigree
King O’Beer: Will’s roommate, he and Sparks (their third roommate) are both in love with Mooner
Strider: Beautiful, regal elf, he seems like he’d be a dick but he totally isn’t
Sai: Resident mature, non-idiot, she is also Bordertown’s middleweight boxing champ
When you arrive in Bordertown, the city that stands between The World and Faerie, where spellboxes power motorcycles and gingerbread cookies beg not to be eaten, it isn’t very wise to piss off anybody.
image: humanoddity.blogspot.com (Annette Kurtis Clause)
When Ron Starbuck runs away to Bordertown in search of his older brother, Tony, the first things he does are get kicked off a moving train, call a pair of half-elven twin bikers “pointy-eared dinks,” and chuck a rock at them. Not a good first impression. But Mooner takes pity on Ron and soon he is zooming through the streets of Bordertown on the back of Mooner’s motorcycle, past “a ruined church that twisted around itself as if magic had brought it to life and someone had barely managed to kill it before it could slither away,” and along the Mad River that smelled “thick and soporific, sweet and fetid like sweat or blood or the beach after a storm,” (15) into Soho, where “something drifting from across the Border reminded [Ron] of waffles and orange blossoms,” and, finally, to Castle Pup, collective house extraordinaire (16).
Everything in Bordertown is cobbled together, carved out and layered atop of what used to be “any damn city in the World”—“Its soul changed, not its shape” (14). Thus, Elsewhere is a delightful romp through an urban landscape repurposed by teenagers and unpredictable, motley magic. Will Shetterly is a master at world-building through description; he’s also one of a fabled few who can use physical description well—in a way that shows how a combination of a character’s born physicality and choices of presentation can give some (limited) insight into her personality.
“wore a black leather jacked draped with chains, a gray Danceland T-shirt, and dirty purple chinos tucked into low blood-red boots. When she came near, I saw that her skin was as pitted as Mooner’s. His made him look dangerous. Hers made her look vulnerable as well, which made her look even more dangerous” (20).
“wore torn blue jeans, black cavalier boots, and a ruffled white silk shirt open almost to his waist. His white hair was tied at the back of his head like a samurai’s. His features were elvishly perfect: high cheekbones, flaring eyebrows, lips that seemed ready to laugh, eyes the color of smoke.
I didn’t hate him immediately. I pitied him. There are three desirable things that a guy can have: height, looks, and brains. The odds of getting all three are so slim that he probably needed help tying his shoes” (21-2).
Shetterly’s descriptions of Bordertown are Elsewhere’s worldview, too. In a city where places and possessions are hodgepodge and magic lives in the cracks of worldly pavement, things are not what they seem. Except when they’re exactly what they seem. Every scene of this novel is packed with delicious atmosphere, funny and smart dialogue, action, and, of course, magic.
what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
I first read this book when I was around twelve or thirteen, and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Each character—even those who appear for only a page or two, and there are many of these—is an individual, and we can read backstory in those brief sketches. This makes the place of Bordertown feel incredibly alive. The cast of central characters, too, is extremely well-drawn, each carrying the mark of her life in every action.
Characters make bad choices and do wonderful things; they are infuriating and lovely. There is not only magic, but also hair-cutting, cooking, dancing, and lots and lots of love, requited and un-. Shetterly shows the mundanities of life in a magical place, and he clearly shows Bordertown’s problems as well as its pleasures. This is one of the novel’s biggest successes, for me: gangs of elves war with humans and halfies; Castle Pup is threatened with a choice between folding from a lack of access to funds and turning itself into a business to stay afloat; King O’Beer and his boyfriend run into Elsewhere to escape a group of gay bashers; throughout the city, kids are addicted to peca and the water of the Mad River; magic backfires and harms people; magic intentionally harms people. The problems of any city run throughout Elsewhere, and Shetterly shows what permutations they might take in a place like Borderland.
Elsewhere is an original novel, but it inhabits the world of Bordertown that was originally created by Terri Windling in the anthologies Borderland (1986), Bordertown (1986), and Life on the Border (1991). Shetterly and Emma Bull (they’re married) contributed the story “Danceland” to Bordertown, and Elsewhere grew out of that story (as did Emma Bull’s 1994 Bordertown novel, Finder). You can read it here.
As Terri Windling explains here, in the late 1980s she was commissioned to create a “shared world” anthology for young adults—a world, that is, that could be built and then opened up so that other authors, like Will Shetterly, could write stories in that world. The setting she proposed, of course, was Bordertown, which she describes as “a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The books gained a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s, spawning, among other things, Borderland parties and raves. Count. Me. In.
Elsewhere is a wonderful read: great characters, awesome writing and—I saved this one—a little mystery that twines slowly through the book like a bike with a semi-busted spellbox. And, at the end, when Ron’s smart mouth pisses off the wrong person, magic turns him into something he could never have imagined. Check out Shetterly’s sequel, Nevernever, to find out what happens to Ron, and whether he can reverse the curse.
Note: in 2011, a new anthology set in Bordertown was published, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner and featuring stories by such YA delights as Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Will Shetterly, Annette Curtis Klause, Cassandra Clare, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman.
You can read Cory Doctorow’s story, “Shannon’s Law,” here.
And, hey, want to write some fanfiction or make some art in the world of Bordertown? Here are the guidelines.
The reason I picked this book up at a library book sale in Ann Arbor many moons ago is that I adore the cover. I guess I can see why someone might think it was ugly, but I challenge that person to a boogie-off at Danceland.
Ecstasia by Francesca Lia Block (1993). In this prequel to Primavera (1994), members of a popular band live in a magical world where youth and fun are the most valuable commodities; one by one they are driven underground or out of the city, some for love, and others by addiction.
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (1992). If Elsewhere is punk with elves, then this is elfpunk—well, fairypunk.
The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (Tithe, 2002; Valiant, 2005; Ironside, 2007). Black’s trilogy also delves into the grittiness inherent in the seeming beauty of fey mythos.
And, of course, if you just like the world, anything in the Bordertown oeuvre.
procured from: a library book sale long, long ago (best $1.50 I’ve spent, not counting that one coffee that one time)