J Edward Tremlett's Reviews > Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
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's review
Apr 23, 2012

really liked it
Read in April, 2012

Consider Alif - the start of the alphabet, which makes as good a hiding place as any for a young man who makes his living hiding other people's illegal online endeavors.

Do you need to broadcast porn, or Islamic revolution, in the Middle East? Then Alif, young master hacker, is your man. He doesn't care about your politics or ethics -- he's just happy to make sure the signal doesn't get stopped.

Sometimes it's a mission, and sometimes a job, but it's a game, too, in a way. It's just that the game's got rules he doesn't know about, or consider to amount to much.

But he's soon to learn otherwise.

First, unamused authorities throughout the Middle East see fit to hold his customers and fellow hackers' feet to the fire. Various countries' state security organs begin vanishing people, and it's all Alif can do to keep his clients a few steps ahead of this wave of suddenly-competent cyberpolicing -- courtesy of a mysterious, governmental anti-hacker known only as The Hand.

Then the love of his life -- the beautiful Intisar -- informs him that, contrary to what they'd hoped, their love affair has been ended by outside sources. Her family's about to marry her off to a well-placed, local man, and Alif, the half-Arab, half-Indian son of a local's other wife, has next to no chance of persuading her father otherwise.

"Make it so I never see your name again," she begs him, unable to handle her sadness. In grief and anger, he creates a program to do just that. And then he sends word to her, by way of the neighbor's girl -- his old playmate, the quite-religious Dina -- that Intisar's wishes have been granted.

But the program, created in a strange state of mind, is much more than he had anticipated. It soon becomes clear that Alif has unwittingly unleashed something very powerful onto the net -- something dangerous.

Before long, the mysterious Hand comes to call on his own computer, and he just barely severs connections before his entire network is uncovered, uprooted, and destroyed (he hopes). The very day after, Dina comes back with word from Intisar, and a mysterious, old, and heavy book that his ex-lover's sent him without explanation.

The book is Alf Yeom wa Yeom: The Thousand and One Days -- a book that we, as readers, already know to be something magical. The tome is supposedly a thing touched by the omnipresent yet invisible jinn, who may have also had a hand in the creation of The City, itself, if the tour guides' stories are to be believed. But what are stories but truth wrapped in fiction?

And stories can be powerful things: powerful enough to rewrite reality, both inside the net and outside, in the real world.

Once Alif and Dina, on the run for their lives from state security, begin to investigate why Intisar sent him the book, and what it actually is, they begin to discover just how real some myths can be -- especially the Jinn. And when those beings become involved in this otherwise-earthly struggle for power, the world will shake, and a new story will be told...

"Alif the Unseen" is a brilliant mix of techno-thriller and fantasy, seamlessly meshed with both today's Arab Spring headlines and the 1001 Arabian Nights. As someone who spent many years in the Persian Gulf, I found the mundane sides of the story to be stunningly accurate -- suffused with rich and complicated interplays of birthplace, race, class, and religion that not even demons and invisible beings can fully shake off.

This sumptuous gem of a novel has gathered favorable comparisons to Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson -- and is doubtlessly going to be compared to Matt Ruff's excellent "The Mirage" -- but doing so is criminally shortchanging G. Willow Wilson's own, unique voice. If you liked her idiosyncratic DC/Vertigo comic "Air," and considered her standalone graphic novel "Cairo" to be a sublime work of art, then you will doubtless consider Alif to be another point along a swiftly rising curve.
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