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Alif the Unseen

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  7,773 ratings  ·  1,530 reviews
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 p...more
Hardcover, 433 pages
Published June 19th 2012 by Grove Press
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Mistborn by Brandon SandersonThe Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonThe Gunslinger by Stephen KingThe Way of Shadows by Brent WeeksHowl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Sword and Laser Fantasy List
53rd out of 651 books — 929 voters
Beautiful Ruins by Jess WalterThe Round House by Louise ErdrichBring Up the Bodies by Hilary MantelBehind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine BooThis Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012
18th out of 100 books — 454 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Just when I think that young adult fantasy has nothing new to show me, this one comes along to change my mind. Granted, this is being marketed as an adult novel, but I would disagree with that classification. If anything, this is more of a hybrid. The main character is an early twenties hacker/activist (“hacktivist”) who’s living at home and dealing with his over-attentive mom, the annoyingly devout girl next door, first heartbreak, and an all-powerful instrument of the state who wants nothing m...more
Cassi aka Snow White Haggard
Alif the Unseen is such a unique book. It's a computer-science heavy fantasy novel set in the modern Middle East. There is coding, firewalls, cloud servers and genies, all in the same book. Doesn't that sound amazing? This book is fantasy blended with real science, something that I've never seen before. It's a big risk that pays off.

Very rarely to I go quite as highlighter happy as this book made me. It was smart, clever, funny and thought-provoking.

"How dense and literal it is. I thought it had...more
Maggie Stiefvater
How I loved this problematic novel.

I picked up Alif the Unseen in Oblong Books. It was the last event of my U.S. book tour and I was driving home instead of flying and so I had the unusual liberty of not caring about whether a book purchase would force me to check my luggage.

Mostly I picked it up because it seemed impossible to summarize. My favorite sorts of books to read and write. The back of the book begins with “In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shield...more
Carol. [All cynic, all the time]
Feb 07, 2014 Carol. [All cynic, all the time] rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who want a stretch fantasy
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...more
Executive Summary: A blend of fantasy, technology, politics, and religion that just worked for me. I really enjoyed this book.

Full Review
I seem to be a hot streak lately. I try not to give out 5 stars lightly. Based on good reads, I've given 5 stars to roughly 13% of the 221 books I've rated as of this writing. 18% of those have been given out this year. It's not exactly relevant to this review, but I'm an engineer and that sort of thing interests me.

I forget where exactly I first heard about t...more
Wendy Browne
My friend and I were discussing the problem of finding books featuring non-White protagonists written by non-North American descended authors. We noted that, more often than not in our limited scope, we’d find non-White protagonists written by White authors, or, White protagonists who find themselves in non-White environments, written by White authors. Generally speaking, the result are hit-or-miss when it comes to a respectful representation of a culture that one is not raised in.

Shortly after,...more
VAGUELY SPOILERISH (though nothing major).

In the introduction to his magnificent book The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Arthur Lovejoy turns a memorable phrase when he describes those who thrill to "the metaphysical pathos of obscurity." This book, I fear, is subject to that particular weakness. There's lots of stuff about stories/computer code/metaphor/multiple interpretations/multiple realities that just doesn't make any sense (at least, not to this heathen). When Al...more
Alex Ristea
Er, I finished this 400-page book in two sittings. That's either an exemplary review on its own, or a gloriously egotistical comment on my reading prowess.

Let's go with the former, because to be honest, I've been in a bit of reading slump since Outlander. I've still read a lot, sure, but I wanted the sort of book that would grab me, throw me in, and not let me go until I was finished with it (or perhaps, until it was finished with me.) Alif the Unseen was for me all of that—it cured my slump, an...more
This is a truly genre-bending Islamic hacktivist jinn fantasy cyberthriller, which has to be the most original novel in English in 2012. It is a surprisingly seamless melange of American comic-book sensibility (a fast-moving plot; a coming-of-age storyline) within an Islamic setting, contemporary (a corrupt unnamed Gulf city rife with repression, and ripe for revolution) and imagined (an alternate genie (or jinn) universe). At the same time, amidst all the furious plotting, it asks deeper questi...more
He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif – a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat to his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

I love that this book is set in the Middle East. Most of us, no matter where we live, are probably a little guilty of ignorance when it comes to what goes on in any part of the world that isn’t ‘close’ to us,...more
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Alif the Unseen is one of those obscure novels that not many people have actually heard of, but, thanks to my numerous GoodReads friends who read such varied genres, it somehow came to my attention. Needless to say, all my friends have LOVED this book. For me, though, Alif the Unseen was slightly boring, hard to get through, and dragged ever-so-slightly. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half the book, but I wasn't as impressed as everyone else. While Alif the Unseen remains to be...more
Religion, metaphor, rebellion. The Quran and the Internet. Hackers, effrits, and sheikhs. Douglas Hofstadter shoutouts.

Holy moley.

I read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother a few weeks ago, and wrote up a review saying "You start to think, why isn't there more accessible counterculture stuff like this for YA? Intelligent, interesting, informative..."

Alif the Unseen first hooked me as I scanned the back cover and saw "young Arab-Indian hacker" and a mention of jinn (djinn/genie). A closer look at the...more
Dear People who Read Books,

Please read this book.

No, really, I mean it. Okay fine, I will tell you why you need to read this. The characters in this novel, while not being teenagers, are young adults and therefore this novel meets the criteria set (by me) to be called Young Adult. Okay, let me begin again. Properly this time.

Alif the Unseen is set in a city in Saudi Arabia and it is, perhaps, one of the few books I have read that manage to write in a setting like Saudi Arabia without preaching a...more
This review will be scattered because I don't have much time. So be it. I really enjoyed reading a fantasy novel that truly wove in culture (politics, practices, cultural conflicts, words used, and all). This novel read like it was written by someone closely connected to its setting. I like that. There's an ambitiousness in it. It's not afraid to comment on things (and not afraid to show the negative sides. It's sure that it will not fall into cliche) and it's thoughtful and loving in how it goe...more
Jul 17, 2012 Regina rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fans of Fantasy and Urban Fantasy
Recommended to Regina by: Catie
Have you ever traveled to another country or place with a different culture and wanted to be more than just an observer? More than just a tourist? When I travel, I have this mindset that I want to go and take in, not judge or compare and not think — oh in the US we would do this. I want to just be and try to pretend I am a local. This is really hard to do, but I try to challenge myself to do this. In the fantasy and urban fantasy genre, there are not many books that take place in what we call th...more
Gary  the Bookworm
This one is hard to nail down. It evokes Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Aladdin while remaining fresh and unique. Alif, a hacker genius and Dina, his veiled Moslem sidekick, take us on an odyssey between their world, an unnamed Arab state which is about to explode, and the world of the supernatural. Along the way they pick up a holy book and lots of jinn helpmates, including an honest-to-goodness genie. They step into one bad situation after another and manage to survive only because they re...more
Jonathan Strahan
One of the most interesting and rewarding books I've read in 2012, G. Willow Wilson's debut novel Alif the Unseen is ostensibly a contemporary young adult fantasy novel about a dissident computer hacker set in an unspecified Arabic country at a time of rising civil unrest. The book has a lot to recommend it - engaging characters, a fast-paced narrative and so on - but what makes it most interesting is the way it interrogates the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, between secular and...more
My rating should be taken in light of the fact that the line "Alif felt a swell of admiration. She really was as smart as a man." meant I was now rating this book out of 3 rather than 5. Yes, perhaps one could make the argument that the protagonist was on a journey on self discovery which included learning that his culture is wrong to think that women are inferior. I don't care. I think it's offensive and small minded and to have read this in a book penned by a woman makes me shake with anger.

I really enjoyed this. Realistic and fantasy aspects mesh into a richly believeable world, the characters are satisfyingly flawed and sympathetic, book-within-book goodies abound and every plot hinge, whether the fulcrum is a romantic moment, a sharp insight, the revelation of a possible enchantment, an unexpected appearance (especially the occasional deus ex machina) or the use of honed hacker skills, had me grinning. Furthermore, power dynamics are complicated when (twice) privileged character...more
Final review:
Alif The Unseen is an incredible fiction debut. The story of a middle eastern hacker on the run from the authorities, Alif is one of the best books yet about the passions and frustrations that led to the Arab Spring(s). It is also a welcome, and long overdue, use of middle eastern culture, legends, history, and other story elements in popular literature. There were moments in ATU that made me pit the book down, to let what I'd just read sink in. Based on her first novel, G Willow Wi...more
I seem to be a detractor here on Goodreads. Strangely, I read this book fairly quickly which is unusual for something I eventually give 2 stars. But it seemed to unravel towards the end, with yet another hackneyed battle between good and evil... I just couldn't stomach it, probably because after 400+ pages I hadn't really come to care for the characters that much. This book has all the trappings of a page turner -- genies, exotic Isalmic locales, technology, political intrigue and revolutions, e...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Alif is the handle for a teenage hacker living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, one where the flow of information is controlled and monitored by the state. He has made a name for himself (not his actual name, obviously) by helping various groups subvert the system at various times. He becomes an unknowing rival to someone known as The Hand, and as he tries to escape he ends up in a world where jinns exist.

This novel is an entertaining read combining hackers with partially unseen beings, le...more
Well, this is a wonderful book! I love loved it! It's about Alif, a hacker in the Middle East, who has an ill-fated romance with a woman, is stalked by a mysterious government hacker called The Hand, and interacts with real Djinn who actually exist, invisible among us. It's totally fascinating! A really enjoyable read that combines politics and tech and magic in a wonderful way.

Recommended for people who like Neal Stephenson or Da Vinci Code, just a fantastic thriller with magical overtones and...more
I've been hearing good things about this book more or less since it came out. G. Willow Wilson was interviewed on The Sword & Laser podcast and piqued my interest, and then some of my friends here on Goodreads read it and recommended it...I don't know why I waited so long, other than that I didn't have a lot of time. Something else always came first: an S&L pick or a book to review for SFF or some major hospital trip...


Part Little Brother, part Middle Eastern fantasy, c...more
Emily Crowe
Good folks of Goodreads, please consider this a 3.5 star review.

I've had a tough time composing my thoughts on this book. I started reading it quite a few weeks ago and didn't get very far, and then I finished reading it, lickety-split, over the last four days. Since the book weighs in at over 400 pages, that's a lot of lickety-splitting, though admittedly I did some heavy skimming.

As in so many cases, I was originally drawn to Alif the Unseen by the cover. I am very judging when it comes to boo...more
Lexie Robinson Austin
Oof! This book reads like a brick. The New York Times has called it "The Harry Potter of the Arab Spring". They lied.

A sidetrack: I strongly distrust whenever a book is referred to as the "next Harry Potter". To have that combination of imagination, wit, charm, plot, and MAGIC is very very rare. If every book that was proclaimed to be the next Harry Potter actually WAS, then I would be giving out a lot more five star reviews.

From the book description: "In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state...more
Alif the Unseen is a novel about political unrest in the Middle East, fueled by hackers and subversives on the internet who are angry about the way their governments are controlling their lives and cracking down hard on the digital world. This virtual unrest eventually leads to a revolution of sorts, but according to the author, G. Willow Wilson, an award-winning writer of graphic novels working in prose for the first time, the book was already in editing when the winter of 2011 turned into the...more
R.H. Watson
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson takes place in a fictional contemporary Arab emirate that's on the boiling point of the Arab Spring. Alif is a young guy, a hacker, who makes a shady, but honorable living hiding his clients'---bloggers of every subversive type: Islamists, secularists, communists, whatever---Internet footprints from the emirate's state security, run by a man who Alif and his digital friends have nicknamed the Hand of God. Alif falls in love with a highborn girl. They meet, spe...more
Oct 11, 2013 new_user rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone!
Recommended to new_user by: Regina
Shelves: magical-realism
Delicious critique filling in a yummy entertainment shell. In Alif the Unseen, ostensibly about hacker Alif drawing the attention of security in an unnamed Middle-eastern Gulf state, author G. Willow Wilson sources reality for her heroes and villains, where protagonists rebel via the net and the villain is a cynical parasite who doesn’t believe in the agency of the people. Wilson subtly critiques racism, sexism, classism, masculinity, ritualism, and autocracy, among other things, but her narrati...more
Nisah Haron
Sebuah novel yang menggabungkan fiksyen sains (dunia 'hackers'), fantasi (dunia jin) dan thriller. Tidak ketinggalan diselitkan unsur-unsur Islam kerana latar ceritanya berlaku sekitar "Arab Spring". Tempo cerita yang pantas menyebabkan pembacaan terasa lancar. Sindiran terhadap golongan 'emir' yang kaya raya tetapi tidak tahu mahu diletakkan ke mana kekayaan mereka itu.

"Alif" nama skrin bagi seorang 'hacker' yang terperangkap apabila pemerintah melihat dia sebagai suatu ancaman kepada keselama...more
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“All translations are made up" opined Vikram, "Languages are different for a reason. You can't move ideas between them without losing something” 36 likes
“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.” 20 likes
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