Book Review: "Alif The Unseen" by G. Willow Wilson

Thursday, September 05, 2013

“If man's capacity for the fantastic took up as much of his imagination as his capacity for cruelty, the worlds, seen and unseen, might be very different.” 

I can't think of anything more timely right now than a fast-paced urban fantasy novel based on the Arab Spring, Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Alif, an Arab-Indian teenage hacker, specializes in giving his clients anonymity. From whom? The government. The modern Middle East is rife with censorship, and Alif's skill lies in protecting his clients, who range from anarchists to Islamists to socialists. He isn't picky about who he protects, as long as they're being silenced by what he calls the "Hand." His greatest loyalty is to freedom of information.

"Princes in silver-plated cars" exist, but a mail service does not. Wilson deftly discusses social ills in this fantastical version of Cairo. The most fantastic part of the story line is that it seems all too real. It isn't enough to have Alif running away from the authorities after creating a dangerous program after a break-up (that's what everyone does, right?); Alif runs into jinn, more commonly known as "genies." Yes. Genies. And they have written a book called the "Alf Yeom." It's a bit like One Thousand One Nights, but far more dangerous. The worst part is that it ends up in Alif's hands.

Part love story, part political thriller, and part urban fantasy, Alif the Unseen manages to be all and none at once. It's the epitome of a great read, written with cultural sensitivity and delving deeply into questions of faith. Even better, it's also highly original, which is why I'm struggling to summarize its plot.

I think it's interesting to note that Wilson is an American convert to Islam. Having grown up in a Muslim household, often I felt like things were a bit off with the way she portrayed Arab culture and Islamic belief. However, it was fascinating to see someone who is not quite an outsider, yet not quite a true believer, looking in. Wilson is religious, but she's also critical and introspective. This makes for a incisive yet beautiful novel. My verdict? This is the definition of a "must read," especially if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman. It's a little bit of both authors with a dash of that indescribable something that makes G. Willow, G.Willow.

Images (c) 2012 Alif The Unseen