Already an accomplished journalist and graphic novelist, G. Willow Wilson makes her novel writing debut with Alif the Unseen, an urban fantasy that feels like surreal science fiction. It follows a teenaged Arab-Indian hacker, who goes by the handle Alif, as he defies internet laws in an unnamed Middle Eastern security state. His aristocratic lover jilts him and then his computer system is compromised by the Hand, the government’s mysterious electronic security force. When it seems things couldn’t get much worse, he finds himself in possession of the secret book of the djinn, The Thousand and One Days, and must keep it safe while evading capture himself.
Once I started reading Alif the Unseen, I found myself completely drawn in. The story engrossed me and I struggled every time I had to put the book down. I found most of the story to be thoroughly unpredictable. There was one reveal that I saw coming a mile away, while Alif didn’t, but everything else caught me off guard. That may be simply because I was reading so fast that I didn’t have time to think about where the story might go next, but each new twist and turn caught me up further, at times leaving me breathless, at times astonished, and always interested to see what would happen next.
Alif blatantly breaks—and helps others break—the law, but the cause that inspires him, freedom of speech, is a noble one. Yet, while defying a totalitarian rule is often a heroic thing to do, Alif is more of an antihero. He’s not very brave or bold. He has a definite temper and is generally rather grumpy. His morals aren’t very strong. He’s just a regular guy, with no magical or heroic special abilities. His exceptional skills with computers don’t grant him any skills in any other way, and he doesn’t deal very well with the dangerous circumstances thrust upon him. Being just a regular person might make Alif a more relatable protagonist, to some people, but I couldn’t understand his motivations beyond survival. Then again, I may have found him more relatable if I’d ever been a hormonal teenage boy.
I found it difficult to relate to most of the other characters, as well. Dina was the one character I felt I mostly understood. I really enjoyed reading about her, though I didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked, and some of her motivations were never fully fleshed out. Perhaps someone with a greater understanding of Middle Eastern religions would have gotten more out of her character.
Surreal juxtaposition of djinn and tech
Despite my lack of connection to the characters, they still felt real, as did the setting—at least at first. Wilson brings this unnamed city to life and skillfully gives it color and flavor, and it feels like someplace you could visit and see the exact sites, if you could only figure out where it is. But then she takes us into a magical world that feels quite unearthly. This strange blend of our own world—with specific focus on the high-tech aspect, with a hacker protagonist—and this magical world of the djinn gives the novel a rather surreal feel.
My one complaint
While I didn’t relate to the characters very much, that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying Alif the Unseen—until I got to the end. After the exciting climax of the story and some brief falling action, the book just ended fairly abruptly, with barely a hint of dénoument. The biggest issues were indeed resolved to some extent, but so much was unresolved and the ending was so sudden that I was left wanting.
Why should you read this book?
Alif the Unseen is a book unlike any I’ve read before. It takes a technologically savvy kid and throws him into a completely unfamiliar world with djinn and supernatural books. Plenty of books involve characters from the mundane world encountering the magical, but few add science to the blend. This book definitely has an interesting story with engaging writing; I enjoyed reading it and I’d certainly call it a good book, despite being a little uncertain whether I truly liked it. This is a debut worth reading for anyone who enjoys unusual, engaging stories or who is interested in Middle Eastern politics, religion, or mythology.