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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
― Voltaire

Alif the Unseen. See it.

Alif the Unseen - G. Willow Wilson

The end of the year, and I decided to finish with a bang, picking the most promising books lingering on my ToBeRead list. It’s been one interesting read after another, and if they weren’t all equally amazing, most have been thought-provoking and interesting. Alif came to my attention as a genre-bender, an urban fantasy set in the Middle East and about a computer hacker on the run. Great characterization, trim plotting, an unusual urban setting with clever fantastical elements means it was one of the successes. 


The tale starts with a short prologue of a man transcribing the stories of a captive jinn, but it truly begins with Alif, sitting on his roof and moping over the lack of contact from his secret girlfriend. Alif is the screen name of an equal-opportunity computer hacker, serving clients large and small in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. Ever since the Egyptian revolution, the computer environment has become more perilous, with censors and state agents seeking to track dissidents. Alif does his part against the machine, running internet access and digital concealment for “bloggers, pornographers, Islamists, and activists from Palestine to Pakistan.” He and his hacker friends bemoan the lack of understanding from Western hackers of what hardship is really like:


They had no idea what it was like to operate in the City, or any city that did not come prewrapped in sanitary postal codes and tidy laws. They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policy systems in the world, but no proper mail service. Emirates with princes in silver-plated cars and districts with no running water. An Internet where every blog, every chat room, every forum is monitored for illegal expressions of distress and discontent.


 Alif’s illicit romance is with an aristocratic Arab woman, a relationship which, while not outright forbidden, is essentially impossible for Alif as a half Arab, half Indian, and a member of the underclass. Nonetheless, they have managed a handful of clandestine meetings until the moment Intisar cuts off contact, revealing a marriage has been arranged for her.


Society didn’t mind if you broke the rules; it only required you to acknowledge them. Meeting after dark showed a presence of mind. It suggested that you knew what you were doing went against the prevailing custom and had taken pains to avoid being caught.


In a moment of questionable motive, he returns evidence of their relationship to her using his neighbor and childhood friend Dina as go-between. Intisar returns the favor by smuggling him a very old text that turns out to be a rare edition of The Thousand and One Days. Subsequent events result in he and Dina being followed by state agents, and forced to turn to Alif’s questionable contacts for assistance.


“Alif looked up at … sharply. The lower half of his body seemed less terrifying now, a confluence of man and animal familiar to some inherited memory from another age.”


From the moment they discover the book, Alif and Dina are on the run, first to the hackers, then to a bazaar, the university and a mosque. Much like all transformative/heroic tales, there are characters along the way that will help them learn life lessons, perhaps growing up a little faster than they would have safe at home.


He was nearing the great copper doors where his muddy path began. For the first time he became aware of the profound silence of the place, insulated by stone and metal from the noise of the street outside. It gave the mosque a sympathetic air, as if it could speak but chose instead to listen.


Characterization is a strong point. While I didn’t find Alif an entirely sympathetic character, I believe that to be in keeping with Wilson’s intentions. He is immature for his years and a typically self-interested teen, waffling from angst to sarcasm to self-reproach. The journey transforms him into someone more mature and admirable. Conversely, while Dina is considerate from the start, she lacks a certain worldliness in perspective. In the world of urban fantasy, it is very interesting to find a woman who wears a veil out of choice and understanding that choice is part of Alif’s maturation. The complexity of Dina’s decision to wear the veil as a woman of the underclass is alluded to, but not a prime focus of the novel. It is also fascinating to see her and Alif attempt to maintain sexual propriety on the run from authorities. Wilson also deserves kudos for achieving an otherworldly sensibility to the jinn characters. I thought the blending of disgust, frustration, and affection entirely believable.


Plotting is unusual for an urban fantasy, with life-altering consequences that effect not only Alif but those around him. Powerful, but quite possibly incongruent in tone. I won’t say more for fear of significant spoilers, but I was surprised at how serious of tone the story takes midway through. Perhaps because I am a Westerner, and never really wrap my belief around those systems. There’s also a perplexing side story of an American woman who comes to The City to for her PhD and ends up converting, but isn’t quite a ‘believer.’ When I learned more about Wilson, I almost suspect her of poking fun at herself. There is also a few story-within-a-story episodes that come courtesy of The Thousand and One Days.


My two concerns–or rather, a concern and a quibble–would be one, that the subtext of the story is not particularly subtle; at times the metaphors seem quite forced and overt. Two,  in a certain section in the latter portion of the book starts to sound a bit preachy. I’m not always a fan of the Socratic method myself and generally feel that it throws me out of the story. Nonetheless, it seems to be a necessary part of Alif’s growth to engage in face-to-face discussion with others.


Concerns about forced metaphors aside, I happen to enjoy Wilson’s writing a great deal. She has a nice balance between imagery and action. Her images of the city help it come alive, in the tourist coffee shop, a random grove of palm trees, the university, the mosque. Characterization is conveyed with a few well-chosen words and images; Alif’s frustrated temper and regret, Dina’s attempt at normalcy while fleeing, the sly wink of an orange cat.

This is one book that might have benefited from a read with a linked dictionary, as Wilson has no hesitation in including Muslim words, and I get much too involved in a story to stop for little things like vocabulary comprehension. Gestalt meaning is my friend!


Overall, an innovative book that deserves its World Fantasy Award. I look forward to seeing what Wilson does next.