Review: Alif the Unseen

“The semester is coming to a close, and I have a lot of work to do. Why can’t I put this book down?” I ask myself, having spent this last week completely engrossed in G. Willow Wilson’s latest novel, Alif the Unseen, which came out in June 2012. On Sunday, I fell asleep with the book on my pillow.

From the book jacket:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.

This book is an adventure, a veritable tour de mystical force. I cannot help but compare the book to Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods; both require the protagonist and the reader to believe, and belief opens the doors to worlds unseen. Although many may see it as such, this belief is not an exotic dressing for the novel, but a part of the world. To call fire-eyed jinn, the power of words and code, desert car chases, and revolution “mundane” would certainly be wrong, but Wilson treats them as part of the world, and this world’s got them all. Wait, how do you believe in a car chase? That there is hope of escape. In a world of increasing digital state surveillance, this is a powerful hope. It is not an exotic impulse to hope, and believe, and to act on hope and belief.

This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Wilson’s writing, and is impressive for a debut novel. This is without even mentioning her wonderfully crafted characters. It takes a while to warm up to Alif, another unsurprisingly male protagonist, but his struggle with identity is real and worth note. He has personality, convictions, and a capacity to learn. Nearly all of the characters, in fact, show these traits. From the indomitable Dina, Alif’s childhood friend, who invites us to share a space both personal and spiritual, to the jinn Vikram in which Alif sees “a predatory, unnerving humor, like the musing of a leopard in a pen of goats,” G. Willow Wilson urges perspectives into the world.

Alif the Unseen won the 2013 World Fantasy Award. You can find this book in our collection at the Literatures and Languages Library. Click here to view Alif the Unseen in the catalog. Other works by G. Willow Wilson include her graphic novel Cairo (2006), comic series Air (2008-2010), and an autobiographical account in The Butterfly Mosque (2010). Currently Wilson is writing a Ms. Marvel comic series starring an American Muslim teenage shapeshifter.

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