Book Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

OnAPaleStar September 28, 2012 No Comments »

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
urban fantasy
June 2012
Grove Atlantic
431 pages
format: hard cover
accquired: borrowed from local public library system

The blurb, from Goodreads:
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. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

The review:

The protagonist of Alif the Unseen, Alif, is, by his own thought process, just a guy. Granted, he’s a hacker who is pushing back against a security state (whose surveillance is run by one they only know as The Hand) by allowing anyone who can pay uncensored, unrestricted access to the Internet, but in the end, he doesn’t think he’s particularly exceptional. He’s an Arab -Indian, a product of his Arab father’s affair with his Indian mother, and as such he occupies a social orbit that is decidedly not high brow. Nonethess, he’s been having a clandestine affair with a university student, Inistar, whose aristocratic heritage makes her far, far out of his social and economic class.

No surprise, then, that when Inistar’s parents arrange a suitable marriage for her, their affair is terminated. Inevitable or not, being left by Inistar is devastating to Alif. She tells him something to the effect of “I can never see you again,” and Alif takes her seriously. He obsesses over creating a program that can identify her (or, potentially, anyone) by recognizing her keystrokes and uses it to hide his online presence from her no matter where on the Internet she may be.

Given what it says on the book’s blurb–Inistar’s betrothed is none other than the head of the state’s cyber security, The Hand–it’s no surprise that this amazing program Alif created to hide from Inistar falls into the hands of state security. No surprise, either, that this program is then turned into a weapon against Alif, his hacker friends, and his clients.

Suddenly, Alif isn’t safe at home, isn’t safe anywhere, and his life is crumbling around him. Because he’d asked Dina, his friend and neighbor to act as a messenger for him to Inistar, and she’s delivered a package both for him and to him, she is in the wrong place at the wrong time and  gets pulled into the maelstrom Alif has created for himself. They are both on the run, and have nowhere to go. In his desperation, Alif decides to seek the help of the shadowy Vikram the Vampire.

This, of course, is when their lives become the most interesting, and where action of the story really starts. Alif and Dina (and the reader) are introduced to the world of the unseen, where the jinn and other creatures of mythology dwell.

Over the past few years, I’ve become fascinated by frame narratives that allow an “in” into the main story that takes up most of our attention–Scheherazade, who in One Thousand and One Nights relates to the Sultan story after story (some of which have stories within them, too)–or Peter Falk and Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, for a modern film example. Alif the Unseen feeds right into this interest of mine and is indeed tied closely to One Thousand and One Nights.

The package that Inistar has Dina deliver to Alif as all the insanity begins? A copy of the Alf Yeom–the jinn rendition of The Thousand and One Nights, literally The Thousand and One Days. It is the inverse, he finds, of the famous collection of stories. It is a secret, sacred text. Because it’s stories are told by the jinn, humans have long believed it to be the key to cosmic understanding, the key to great magic and power. It is one more reason Alif is hunted, because The Hand wants to use its (assumed) power to create the ultimate security state.

Throughout the novel we get glimpses of the stories told within the Alf Yeom, and they read much like, and much differently than, the stories we are familiar with from One Thousand and One Nights. The inherent differences are what make the Alf Yeom such a powerful talisman and potential weapon.  The power is largely in its secrets, its very identity.

I really appreciate Alif the Unseen’s many layers. It is entirely possible, I think, to read it as an adventure story. Alif is the common man fighting against/running from those who would harm him. He’s in pursuit of the girl. He enters an unseen, previously unknown world, then does his best to save the day in his own. Reading it solely on this level would do the work a great injustice, though. The nature of the mystical, secret identities, revolution, faith, dignity, and self-identity are are explored in the novel through Alif himself and through the secondary (though well-rounded) people and beings who are with him throughout his journey.

I can’t recommend this enough. If I enjoyed Wilson’s graphic novel Cairo, I love Alif the Unseen. I think everyone should read it.

Visit the author’s website. Follow the author on Twitter.


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