Though not totally meritless, it’s safe to say this was not a favorite of mine. I had two primary objections.
First, Becks got it about right when she said “I’ve never read a book that got technology as wrong as this.” Much of the technobabble reads like this Onion article. It’s gibberish — nonsense that’s clearly been passed by a technologist for vocabulary-correction, but which is conceptually empty. I can usually forgive this (though after been recently treated to the very high technical standards of Cory Doctorow’s work, I’m less inclined to do so that I used to be). But in this case the nonsense is used both to define the various maguffins that drives much of the story and to provide the too-tidy resolution that our protagonist drops in the climax. And where the hell did Wilson get the idea that overloaded computers can melt? It’s completely laughable.
Second, I was pretty uncomfortable with the book’s politics. I have complaints about the facile approach to political unrest — the restoration of mobile broadband is treated as if it’s the same thing as a popular uprising’s successful conclusion. But these are superficial compared to my discomfort with Wilson’s sympathy for Islamist counterpoints to the repressive secular state that employs the book’s villains. I’m very ready to admit the beauty, wisdom and historical richness of muslims’ faith. I’m less prepared to accept Wilson’s glib assumption of compatibility between her readership’s liberal cosmopolitan values and her religion’s ethics and politics. Of course the imam wouldn’t really object to popular music. Of course our plucky female lead wears her veil out of choice. I’m sure it’s right that this culture is misunderstood and often subjected to ignorant racism. But that doesn’t mean its attitudes toward women and personal liberty aren’t genuinely noxious. Wilson doesn’t ignore this completely, but she’s much too ready to retreat into mysticism when it comes up.
I understand Wilson to be a convert to Islam herself (married to an Egyptian man) so I don’t want to accuse her of cultural ignorance, or to underestimate the difficulty of reconciling her identity and values with the religious culture she’s chosen. I’m sure that’s been a difficult and very personal process, and one that I have no right to criticise. But, speaking purely as an outside observer, the philosophical gymnastics that seem to be required don’t survive the translation to the page. Frankly, she’s got some nerve to snipe at western fiction for its substantive bankruptcy. Her work ignores those depths.
OK. Enough of that. What’s good about this book? Well, Wilson’s a comic book writer (I suspect this explains a bunch of the silly GR Stephenson comparisons that Becks notes). She has a talent for keeping the action moving and for letting her imagination stretch to interesting locales, characters, scales. They don’t always feel fully sketched-out — perhaps she’s used to collaborating with an artist on that? — but she does often succeed. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the djinn, even if the narrative bridge constructed to them — the Alf Yeom — didn’t really make much sense.
Still, I don’t think the book succeeds. The scaffolding’s there (though it’s at least one act too long), but the foundation’s incoherent. Not recommended.