I had such high hopes for this novel. I had been looking forward to reading it because it has been praised so highly by so many people and it seemed to have all the elements for being a classic. So Imagine my disappointment when it fell flat at every turn.
Let's start with the "technology". It's clear that Wilson is one of those annoying "power users" that knows enough about computers to cause sys admins and IT managers headaches. These are the people who have a hyper-inflated sense of their own knowledge--people who latch on to terms like "hypervisor" and casually use them in sentences around people (or in novels) who are impressed by their technical gravitas. Except, when they present themselves that way to someone who knows what the heck a "hypervisor" is and know that person is full of crap. So the first hurdle I had to overcome in reading this book was to overlook the technical bullshit. I had to tell myself that this was not, after all, a book about technology. That would be fine, except that I got the impression that Wilson was attempting to be a Cory Doctorow or Neil Stephenson when it came to the tech, but she failed because she simply doesn't have credibility. She attempts to cover this shortcoming over by blending technology and fantasy. The result are laughable magic coding sessions in which Alif battles an evil censor by going into a kind of coding "frenzy" in which he literally melts a computer--not just the CPU: the whole thing, keyboard and all. I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity and I think I even said, "You've got to be f-ing kidding me!" Remember the PBS show Cyberchase? This is that show.
OK, so I really forced myself to suppress my inner-geek and read this book from a spiritual perspective. This novel is very much a commentary on Islam and the social/political atmosphere in the Middle East. It even invokes the Arab Spring by name in the beginning. Wilson is, herself, an American woman who converted to Islam and I think her insecurities as a recent (relative) convert pours, unrestrained, into the book. There is actually a female American convert in the novel who goes on a rant about being treated unfairly. Then there is the almost unbearable piety of the female lead, Dina who, despite her station, decides to wear the veil. Ahh, the veil.. My personal feelings about the chador being a symbol and tool of oppression and misogyny aside, Dina is so pure that she's boring and slightly offensive: the 1900s called and want their perfect female archetype back. Then there is the imam, whose constant entreatments on spiritual cleanliness began grating on my nerves really quickly. In the final analysis, however, all of the spiritual "takeaways" were sophomoric and insultingly patronizing. Oh, and His Dark Materials is name-checked early on in a somewhat negative way, but it was gratuitous and there is nowhere near enough muscle in this book to take on Pullman.
Then there was the "fantasy". Genies, demons, and dancing flames, oh my. I've seen "Arabian Nights" used as a reference when describing this novel but this ... You know what? it sucks. OK? It just sucks.
Either Wilson needs to go back to writing graphic novels or get a magic editor because this 500+ page book was about 300 pages too long. The writing was bland and unremarkable. The concept was great--this novel had so much potential but it was squandered on virtually every page.