Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson: A Review


Book #18 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


If you’d been following this blog for a while, you’d know that I’m big on comic books. If you’d been paying attention, then you’d also know that one of my favourite characters is Kamala Khan, a.k.a Ms Marvel, created by G. Willow Wilson. This is what led me to my most recent read: Alif the Unseen.

The novel is set in a fictional city, aptly named “the City”, somewhere along the Persian Gulf. A heavily stratified society ruled by an elite Arab aristocracy with large immigrant populations from all over the world (think Dubai or Riyadh). It is amongst the cultural amalgamation of Baqara District where imported labour from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the lesser Arab states live side by side that we find our protagonist: Alif.

Alif is a computer hacker; his services available to the highest bidder, whether they be the Islamists, the Communists, or the Feminists. As long as they’re against the regime, it doesn’t matter to him. Together, Alif and his computer hacking friends do everything they can to get back at the censors. A quasi-digital revolution, you could say. Unfortunately, this kind of life doesn’t come without its risks, and the infamous Hand (man? computer program? both?) is always on the prowl for anyone that dares defy the state authorities.

Everything was going to plan for Alif until the day his illicit girlfriend, Intisar, decides to break up with him after being betrothed to a member of the royal family. Crushed, Alif chooses to do what he does best, creating a computer program designed to recognise an individual by decoding their behavioural writing patterns. All so he can block Intisar from ever reaching him again (a bit excessive if you ask me). Of course, this kind of program could have disastrous consequences for Alif and the revolutionaries should it end up in the hands of the state. Which it does.

Now on the run from state authorities with his neighbour Dina, Alif comes across a mysterious book called the Alf Yeom (the Djinn’s equivalent of The One Thousand and One Nights). This opens up a new world to Alif as he straddles the line between the world of man and Djinn in his race to put a stop to the Hand. A fugitive on the run, Alif is about to be at the centre of events that will shock the City to its very core.

Willow G. Wilson creates a vibrant world filled with everything you could ask for in an action-adventure novel: Romance, Revolution, Magic, Technology, and, my personal favourite, Djinn. Not only that but Wilson also talks extensively about Islamic theology and highlights issues that are prevalent in the Muslim community with nuance and complexity in a way that doesn’t detract from the story.

Take, for example, the character referred to as “the convert”, an American woman that reverted to Islam and works at Al-Basheera University located in the Old Quarter. An American revert herself, Wilson details a few of the struggles that new members of the Muslim community face from their coreligionists through the convert’s interactions with Alif, Dina and the rest of the uniquely interesting characters that make up her novel. My favourite character being Vikram the Vampire, Alif’s Djinn protector, with his quick wit and constant banter about the fragility of beni adam.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a story that blends the seen with the unseen. Whenever I think of modern Islamic literature and fiction, this is what will come to mind. Many philosophical quandaries are proposed throughout this work, from the Qur’an and its relationship with quantum computing to the all-important question of whether it’s haram to consume virtual pork in a video game. I will most definitely be adding this to my personal canon. Highly entertaining.

I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali: A Review


Book #10 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


This book was recommended to me by a friend of mine (one who has excellent taste in books), so I eagerly added it to my Amazon order of books for the first quarter of 2021. As my first foray into the genre of magical realism, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I turned the cover and plunged into the narrative. Having finished, I can now say that magical realism is now one of my top genres of novel, which works out great as I have One Hundred Years of Solitude lined up to read later in the year. Anyway, without further ado, let’s jump into my review.

I Stared at the Night of the City by Bakhtiyar Ali is the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English. The story follows a group of like-minded friends, all with powerful imaginations, on a quest to discover the truth behind the murder of two lovers. Their search brings them into direct conflict with the Barons, who hold great power and run the city behind the scenes. Each chapter is told from an unreliable narrator’s perspective, each with their own quirks, morals and ambitions. The onus is on the reader to piece together the narrative, deciding who is and isn’t to be trusted.

The novel centres on the conflict between Ghazalnus and the Baron of Imagination, as they battle for control over the Imaginative Creatures (people gifted with powerful imaginations). The Baron of Imagination seeks to use the Imaginative Creatures to construct a new district in the city, one that embodies imagination, a paradise on earth. Meanwhile, Ghazalnus believes that the imagination shouldn’t be exploited for material gain and despises the Baron’s thirst for power.

Alongside this central narrative, many subplots add to the rich tapestry. The redemption story of a former assassin, Hasan-i Pizo, being one such example. Throughout the novel, the reader is introduced to characters and transported to beautiful gardens that blur the line between imagination and reality. Ultimately, the book is so multi-layered that my brief outline of the plot doesn’t do this masterpiece justice.

‘The entire revolution was such a fantastical event that no one knew exactly what to make of it. When the uprising succeeded, it came to a bitter, ugly end. One day, I killed a woman and looked into her eyes. That gaze changed my entire life. In the eyes of that woman, I saw the end of the fantasy. I saw the swept-away hat the comrade had talked about. My dear friends, my revolutionary comrades threw their fantasy away, and never revisited it. And no one ever asked what the fantasy of that long revolution actually was, or what became of the martyr’s fantasies. A revolution is like a dream. When it ends we all wake up, the dream fades and is forgotten. There is nothing in this world as fickle as a revolution.’

One of the novel’s central themes is revolution, vivified in the narrative via the philosophical quandary posed by Husni’s magical towel. Husni, a local towel merchant, owns a beautiful towel depicting the story of a king (realist) and a poet (idealist). On one side is a map depicting the tale of the king as he conquers an old city. On the other side is the same map, only more beautiful depicting the tale of the poet on his journey through the imagination.

As Husni’s towel changes hands throughout the novel, different characters have a go at interpreting the meaning behind the imagery. Who is more righteous? The poet or the king? Can poets and kings coexist? Can a king be a poet? Can a poet be a king? Must one slay the other? Can one slay the other? Which one slays the other? Is the king evil because he seeks power? Is the poet evil because he wields power but doesn’t wish to use it to better reality? And so on and so forth. Thus initiating an exciting discussion about imagination and reality in regards to the revolution. Not to mention the role of truth in all this.

I highly recommend I Stared at the Night of the City to anyone and everyone. The book had such a profound impact on my own ideas about the power of the imagination that I’d go as far as to include it in my personal canon. Its multiple layers and deep meaning makes it a novel I will most definitely be revisiting in the future.

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh: A Review


Book #6 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


As someone who has done quite a bit of research into the history of Indian Partition, I understand the frustration of trying to find novels set during the tumultuous period. The truth is there are very few novels that touch upon the subject. Perhaps because of how painful it was for those who lived through it. In many ways, Partition is becoming a part of forgotten history. Fortunately, I got my hands on a copy of Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.

The novel takes place in the fictional village of Mano Majra located on the new border between Pakistan and India. The village is an even split between Muslims and Sikhs with only a single Hindu family. Life is peaceful in Mano Majra and typical of a Punjabi village. Then one fateful night, Lala Ram Lal, the Hindu moneylender, is murdered.

Suspicion is laid at the feet of the local badmash, Juggat Singh, and a mysterious new arrival by the name of Iqbal (Mohammed? Chand? Singh?). Tensions begin to rise in Mano Majra, as news pours in of the atrocities committed by Muslims and Sikhs in the rest of Punjab. The villagers are then forced to make a decision that would change Mano Majra forever.

Khushwant Singh’s tale is an in-depth look into Partition on the local scale and doesn’t get bogged down in its politics. By focusing on its impact on the lives of regular village folk, Singh humanises a turning point in history that has often been devolved into a debate concerning Pakistan’s legitimacy. This isn’t a tale about two religious communities at each other’s throats but rather the coming of the apocalypse for the innocent people of Mano Majra. Their way of life is turned on its head due to the egos of those in power.

Throughout the novel, you get to meet an interesting assortment of characters. All of which seem as though they have lived full lives before you meet them and add to the fabric of the novel. Surprisingly, despite the number of characters, none of them come across as bland or irrelevant. Iqbal’s and Hukum Chand’s internal monologues are particularly gripping.

I highly recommend Train to Pakistan and go as far as to include it in my personal canon. Its social commentary provides insight into rural Punjabi life (in all its glorious vulgarities) and highlights the real human impacts of Partition. It wasn’t just the breaking up of a country but the breaking up of brotherly bonds tracing back generations.

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi: A Review


Book #2 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


I originally came across The Wish Maker after a google search:

novels set in pakistan

Something about the name Ali Sethi rung a bell but I couldn’t quite remember where I heard the name from. This inevitably led to another google search:

ali sethi

And as it turns out, Sethi is a Pakistani singer, and I had already listened to few tracks on which he is featured (most notably Coke Studio’s Aaqa). In fact, I had first heard Sethi’s voice years back when I watched The Reluctant Fundamentalist (I recommend both the novel and movie adaptation) which features his singing debut. I just didn’t know it was him. And so with a feeling of familial attachment akin to one you’d have for a very distant cousin, I decided to take a chance and pick up a copy.

The Wish Maker follows the story of a young man named Zaki Shirazi, who has returned home to Pakistan after studying abroad in America for a few years. The novel picks up with him arriving in Lahore for his cousin Samar’s wedding. It then branches off as Zaki, the narrator, recounts tales from his childhood set amidst the backdrop of Pakistan’s political history.

As the story progresses, you begin to learn more and more about the Shirazi family history as told through the lives of its female characters. I found Daadi’s childhood an incredibly heart-wrenching story of loss at the hands of cultural and political forces as well as her own. However, my favourite character has to be Zakia (Zaki’s mother). Her back and forth dynamic with young Zaki is both entertaining and heart-warming.

Sethi puts together a tapestry of the Shirazi family’s history that paints an enlightening picture of what life is like for Pakistan’s middle class. You can tell when reading that Sethi draws a lot of inspiration from his own life with the level of familiarity with which he writes. In many ways, the novel feels like an autobiography, the characters feel real, and the setting feels like home.

Because of this level of familiarity, non-Pakistanis (and maybe even Pakistani diaspora) may have difficulty grasping with the narrative. Sethi doesn’t go off on long-winded explanations to make his story accessible to those outside the country. Instead, Sethi has written a Pakistani novel for Pakistani readers. Most of its references are for a Pakistani audience – I’m sure that even I didn’t pick up on a few. Perhaps because of this reason, the book seems to have received relatively poor reviews on Goodreads; Pakistanis seem to love it while non-Pakistanis seem to be lost and confused.

In conclusion, I recommend this book to anyone familiar with Pakistan. For me personally, the novel brought to life some of Pakistan’s most tumultuous times. The history that I’ve studied in other non-fiction books finally begins to feel real.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond: A Review


Book #1 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.


I originally received this book as a Secret Santa gift back in 2018 with a pair of socks and a few coloured biros. At first glance, the book seemed far too long, and the subject matter didn’t interest me at the time. I was only 17 so the only things on my mind at the time were girls, video games, and A-levels (in that order).

In the two years since then, I’ve developed a keen interest in global development within post-colonial contexts. Studying the history of various ex-colonies around the world and how their development was hindered as a result of European exploitation. However, I never stopped to think and ask the obvious question – the same question Yali posed to Diamond – why was it that Europe colonised Africa, Asia, America and Australia rather than the reverse?

And so recently, while going through some old stuff, I stumbled upon this book again. But instead of dismissing it as my 17-year-old self did, my interest was piqued. I then spent the next 5 weeks diving my nose between the pages of this fine depository of knowledge. Which brings us to today and my review of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

The entire premise of Guns, Germs, and Steel is to the answer Yali’s question:

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people have little cargo of our own?

Diamond attempts to answer this fundamental question by giving his readers a multi-disciplinary crash course in history. I found the chapters dedicated to evolutionary biology and linguistics to be incredibly exhilarating. Diamond doesn’t hang about and cuts straight to the ultimate cause of global disparities in development: geography.

People that were lucky enough to find themselves in the ideal geographical location for development would be the ones that rose to prominence. By virtue of their location, they would develop the most Guns (weapons), Germs (diseases), and Steel (technology). Those unlucky enough to draw the short straw would be doomed to be conquered by the lucky ones. Thereby undermining the archaic belief that Europeans came to dominate the world because of some inherent superiority in the European people themselves but rather by luck of the draw.

I expect that if the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene, the original Aboriginal Australians would be the ones occupying most of the Americas and Australia, as well as Eurasia, while the original Aboriginal Eurasians would be the ones now reduced to downtrodden population fragments in Australia.

Diamond does an excellent job explaining complicated concepts in simple terms so that a layman like me can understand. After finishing his book, I really feel that my knowledge of global history has been broadened. I now have a bunch of new facts that I can bore family and friends with. For instance: did you know that of the 148 species of mammal weighing over 100 pounds, only 14 have been domesticated – 13 of which were domesticated in Eurasia alone! This undoubtedly gave Eurasians a considerable advantage over people in other continents. On the whole, Eurasia was the best continent for human development for a myriad of reasons that Diamond explains in his book.

One critique often cited against Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it overgeneralises. However, I would argue that this is an inevitability for a book which aims to pack 13,000 years of human history into around 400 pages. This book seeks to outline the overall trends in human history. Not give an in-depth study of every little detail of every single decision made by humans across the world. That would be near impossible. Instead, Guns, Germs, and Steel serves as a great entry point for people interested in studying history. Part Four: Around the World in Six Chapters acts as a great stepping stone for this very purpose. Furthermore, Diamond also includes nearly 30 pages of recommended further reading.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the social sciences. Its multi-disciplinary approach makes it useful for almost any field. No matter your intellectual background or goal, you will find something new and exciting in this book, which will add to your future discoveries.