For a variety of reasons, I'm in something of a reading and reviewing slump right now; until I regain my joy, I'll be reposting old reviews from elsewhere.
The following review - a joint piece on Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) by Saladin Ahmed, and Alif the Unseen (2012) by G Willow Wilson - was written last summer, and recently published in Vector #274. The table of contents for the issue's reviews, and Martin Petto's editorial, are both here.
(He is, naturally, utterly wrongheaded about both Julianna Baggott's Pure and Madeline Ashby's vN.)
I suspect you can guess what this review’s opening gambit is going to be, but – alas – I can’t resist: you wait ages for a Middle Eastern-tinged fantasy novel, and then two come along at once. While the genre’s invented worlds and visions of the future have become a little less Anglo- and Euro-centric over the past few years, engagement with the storytelling potential of any of the cultures of the Islamic world has remained vanishingly rare, at least outside of the wackier end of American military sf (of which the less said, the better). Within more thoughtful mainstream sf, Ian McDonald and Kameron Hurley have shown what can be done, drawing excellent stories out of richly textured portraits of multifaceted Islam(s) and diverse Muslim characters, and one or two Arabic-language works have appeared in English translation (like Ahmed Khaled Towfik's Utopia (2011), set in near-future Egypt); until now, though, there has been little fantasy on offer.
I use ‘fantasy’ quite deliberately, here; both of the debut novels under review, one by an Arab-American and one by an American convert to Islam resident in Cairo, are fantasies. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a slice of high adventure swords-and-sorcery, in an urban setting reminiscent of medieval Baghdad or Cairo. Alif the Unseen, for all that it centres on a computer hacker in a contemporary (fictional) Gulf city and was touted in some quarters as a contender for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, is in reality about as science fictional in aims and spirit as Harry Potter. Its nameless City is a realm in which jinn regularly meddle, and Wilson doesn’t even bother to supply some handwavium code to explain the Macguffin computer programme that her protagonist creates in what is effectively a magical trance. The science, such as it is, isn't the point, only window-dressing for Wilson's real interests.
Of the two books, Throne is the more successful, both as a piece of entertainment and as a blending of familiar genre tropes with Islamic cultural touchstones. At the core of the story is a plucky band of adventurers – ghul-hunter Adoulla, reserved young dervish warrior Raseed, shapeshifting tribeswoman Zamia, healer Dawoud, and his magician wife Litaz – on a quest to save the venerable city of Dhamsawaat (and its ruler, the Khalif) from scheming courtiers conjuring evil spirits. Ahmed’s choice to set the majority of the action in city streets and souqs is a smart one: medieval Islamic culture was overwhelmingly urban, and Dhamsawaat is a nicely realised confection of commerce and tea-houses, book-lined homes and dusty alleyways. Similarly, the situations our heroes find themselves in echo Arabic and Persian literary tropes from the likes of The Thousand and One Nights: slightly undignified scuffles in alleyways with glamorous thieves and sniffy religious scholars, drawn-out negotiations with obstinate functionaries at palace gates, and encounters with age-old supernatural beings on the liminal fringe between desert and city walls.
There are some oddities in the use of the material, chiefly among the names. Adoulla, for example, means “the state”, and – at least in a medieval context – makes no sense as a name standing alone, rather than (as was the usual practice) paired with an attribute of said state, such as in the name of a certain 11th-century vizier, known as Nizam al-Mulk (‘pillar of the state’). Sillier still, we’re told several times of the existence of a poet called Ismi Shihab. Since ‘Ismi’ literally means ‘my name’ in Arabic – and ‘Ismi Shihab’ simply ‘my name is Shihab’ - I couldn't help but giggle every time I read it, imagining how the poor chap must have spent his life trying and failing to make himself understood: “Hello, my name is Shihab.” “Nice to meet you, Mr My Name.” “No, no, my name is Shihab!” (etc.) [*]
Where Throne wears its setting lightly, Alif the Unseen feels more like it has something to prove. There are several dialogue exchanges – on medieval Islamic science, for example – that seem to be directly addressed to a western audience presumed ignorant of Islam, and there is also some real effort to nuance the issue of women, the veil, and choice (although the latter is undermined by the way the narrative treats its female characters, on which more below). Willow's nameless City, meanwhile, is a sensitive and in places justifiably angry portrait of the autocratic regimes and highly stratified societies that still largely dominate the post-colonial Arabic-speaking world, particularly the oil-rich Gulf monarchies. The City is divided into elite and underclass, with the latter being largely South Asian immigrants labouring for minimal wages and with few legal rights; it is marked by secret prisons and police brutality, by surveillance and online censorship (something its protagonist, the eponymous Alif, makes an illicit living helping clients to circumvent, whether for political purposes or porn). The regime's representatives, when we meet them, are unfortunately more cartoonish than truly sinister or plausible, but a spell in prison for Alif makes for a harrowing middle passage to the book, lent resonance by on-going reports of such repression in Wilson's new home of Egypt and elsewhere.
Like Throne, Alif merges familiar genre beats with fantastical elements drawn from Islamic literature and myth. In the role of smart-aleck supernatural interlocutors for her human characters, Wilson casts the jinn, whose capricious antics feature in many works of medieval Islamic fiction and fact. Shapeshifting, sort-of immortal magic-users, the jinn get to be rude and violent and active agents in the story where Alif and friends are mostly drawn along by events, and they also provide access to cultural memory (which I suppose is a nice way of saying 'infodump'), telling Alif fun facts about the heritage he shares with everyone else in the City. The jinn's homeland, a magical city that exists in effectively a parallel realm, accessed through secret doorways, is Iram of the Columns, mainstay of southern Arabian folklore. The story's main magical artefact, meanwhile, is – fittingly for a culture as steeped in love of the written word as Islam – a book. Named The Thousand and One Days, it is a collection of tales-within-tales like The Thousand and One Nights, to which it is supposedly a jinn-authored counterpart; decoded correctly, it may offer the ability to manipulate space and time. These elements don't always cohere as well they might with the hacker-versus-the-system framework of the plot, however, especially compared with Ahmed's simpler world- and story-building; Wilson has to do more (and more visible) heavy-lifting to get the pieces of her puzzle into place.
Throne is fun but lightweight, a self-contained tale that gets wrapped up in under 300 pages whose consequences are little more than a ripple on the surface of on-going Dhamsawaat life, and whose characters make for cheerful company but are unlikely to live long in the memory. The fight scenes have an air of turn-based combat about them, but are written with enough gusto and attention to in-character experience that it doesn't much matter. The deficiencies in the characters are more serious, but fit with Ahmed’s breezy approach to the novel as a whole: Raseed and Zamia are drawn in broad strokes, for example, the former being an earnest, pious youth determined to deny any feelings that distract from his calling, the latter a prickly, grieving desert nomad out of sorts in the city and laser-focused on avenging the death of her entire clan. Could there be romance on the cards by the novel’s end? (Yes, indeed, but it's all too thinly-sketched and unearned to have much impact.) The older characters get to be more nuanced and enjoyable, perhaps because they aren’t obliged to bear the weight of such conventional story arcs. Adoulla makes for an engaging lead, an essentially good-natured too-old-for-this-shit veteran of supernatural combat, with a love of tea, a “blessedly unstainable” kaftan, and the inevitable loyal love interest whom his dedication to his career kept him from marrying. Litaz and Dawood, likewise, work nicely as a sweetly caring and sharp-witted old couple with hints of a more dynamic past.
Alif the Unseen, by contrast, has a pretty uncompelling protagonist, to put it mildly; Alif is an arrogant manchild who throws elaborate tantrums when things don't go his way. The problem is not that the novel is unaware of how repulsive his actions are, but rather that it actively seeks to excuse and justify said actions. When his girlfriend breaks off her covert relationship with him, because her family has made an arranged marriage for her, does he react with quiet heartbreak for her plight or impotent rage directed at said family, perhaps lamenting the patriarchal society that obliges a girl to obey her elders in all things? No, of course not. Instead, he blames her for refusing to elope with him into an uncertain, family-less future, then digs in a cupboard until he finds the stained sheet from the first time they slept together, and sends it to her with a note suggesting she is likely to need this proof of her virginity for her wedding night. Next, in response to her not-unreasonable suggestion that it would be easier if she never saw him again, he creates a magic computer programme in order to passive-aggressively fulfil her request. Using the surreptitious 'back-door' access he long ago gave himself to her computer system (because apparently nothing says I'm A Keeper like spying on your girlfriend), the programme will log her keystrokes and chart her online activity in such a way that it will be able build a profile of her and use it to automatically detect her presence, whatever alias she uses online. Through the programme, he will always know where she is, while she won't know where he is because he'll be able to prevent her from seeing him.
Yes, Wilson's hero spends the first part of her novel creating the world’s first 100% successful lifelong stalk-your-ex app. But Wilson does not stop there; so invested is she in justifying Alif’s sense of petulant entitlement that the novel is structured to reward his behaviour. His magic stalking programme turns out to be the only thing that can save the City from the forces of secular and supernatural evil that are combining to oppress and overthrow it. (It essentially sparks the Arab Spring.) Then, to cap it all, the unfortunate ex-girlfriend shows up right at the end, whereupon Willow gives her a couple of pages of dialogue to demonstrate definitively that she was a shallow, status-obsessed bitch all along and Alif is definitely better off without her. Luckily, the plucky, veiled Girl Next Door, Dina, is just itching to stop rom-com bickering with him and swoon at his feet. Dina is a well-drawn character, a forthright young woman who is about ten times braver and smarter than Alif, and whose wearing of the veil is presented as a considered choice expressive of her independence of her parents (who had hoped she'd stay unveiled long enough to be sold off to some rich Arab as a plaything or minor wife). Unfortunately, Dina's main role in the plot is to a) alternately moon over Alif and (fondly) tell him off, b) disappear for large chunks of the page-count, and c) get threatened with rape roughly once every fifty pages when she is around.
Strangest of all Alif the Unseen's characters is Wilson's apparent self-insert, an American named only 'the convert'. She is a superficially informed but in fact hopelessly naïve voice, whom the narrative mocks at regular intervals; she's a graduate student working on medieval manuscripts who is repeatedly shown to have too 'western' (read: rational, scholarly) an approach to the world. (Although, since one example of her over-rational Western blindness to wonder involves a bizarre refusal to believe that such a thing exists as a fourteenth-century manuscript written on paper – when plenty of major western university libraries contain older Arabic paper books – you have to wonder how many western scholars Wilson has actually met.) Indeed, the convert seems to exist in the novel primarily to be insulted and humiliated, and is presented as truly content only when she's living in supernatural purdah in Iram, carrying the baby of the jinni who had been most ardently dedicated to demeaning her.
Neither of these debut novels is an entirely satisfactory exploration of the possibilities of Islamic (or Arabic) genre fantasy. Wilson's fantastical Arab Spring, examining the tensions and injustices of modern Gulf society through the re-emergence of Islamic myth and magic, is a marvellous idea let down by her determination to use her characters as vehicles for her argument, and her apparent unwillingness to just let her protagonist be the immature idiot his actions would tend to suggest, rather than the saviour she would like him to be. Ahmed's work is less self-conscious about itself as a pioneer of swords-and-Muslim-sorcery, but perhaps as a consequence it also feels less thoughtful, and less important, for all that it's a fun experience. Both are interesting, then, but it's likely their authors will produce more challenging and absorbing books in the future.
* But the bit that took the prize? The typesetting of map caption at the start of Throne of the Crescent Moon. (I'm assuming Ahmed isn't responsible for typesetting choices. Hoping.) It's the most bizarre confection of actual Arabic letters, vaguely Arabicy swirls, and the inevitable dots that artists unfamiliar with Arabic seem to feel compelled to sprinkle all over the place. After all, it's not like those dots are an integral part of certain letters, like the dot on top of an 'i', or anything; it's just like calligraphic decoration, isn't it? I sigh a thousand times at you.