Bonnie's Reviews > Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
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Jul 16, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: fairy-tales, sci-fi-fantasy, contemporary-fantasy
Read in July, 2012

I read G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen this weekend. Gulped, actually, the way you accidentally eat a whole pint of ice cream because you don't notice until its mostly gone and then you might as well eat the last few bites. I'm very happy to have it in my library, even for a hardcover price.

I found Alif to be a classic tale of good versus evil which follows Joseph Campbell's monomyth structure quite closely. Wilson has hung a fine and fleshy narrative onto this familiar skeleton, and created a window into a world that you, my probably Western reader, probably do not know well. Our titular hero begins as a "gray hat" with the technical knowhow to offer cyber security from censorship, surveillance and other internet trouble to a wide ideological variety of clients. From his usual world, he is soon thrust into a hidden realm where jinns and efrits live at the edges of human sight, and he must learn the significance and use of a mystical jinn text. Helper figures appear to assist him on this journey into the unknown, and when he returns to his everyday world, he has the knowledge to change everything -- rewriting the code that controls the computer systems of his city state, and aiding the popular revolution that has broken out as Wilson's fictional emirate joins the Arab Spring.

Of course, it's not just a feel good adventure story. In many ways, Alif is also a book about faith. All of the characters in Alif are Muslim, with varying degrees of adherence. (If you find this peculiar, please imagine a book by a Western author, perhaps interweaving themes and images from Le Morte d'Arthur, and consider your feelings on an all Christian cast.) Really, this is a book which will mean many different things to different readers. I look forward to rereading it to appreciate the different layers, but on my first pass I was most struck by the blend of cultures: old mythologies overlaid by new technologies, the inmix of Western internet culture into the urban Middle East.

As an American born, adult convert to Islam, Willow is a third culture voice. Obviously the names of Arab pop stars mean little to me and I undoubtedly missed the majority of Eastern cultural references, but I appreciate the Western nods. In the early chapters you will find a line from one of the original Star Wars movies, a childhood favorite for my generation, now staring down 30. There are shades of J.K. Rowling, as Alif is led by a jinn through a seemingly solid wall into the colorfully magical Immovable Alley. These subtle nods demonstrate to me that Wilson is aware of the storytelling tradition in which she exists, of its breadth and its depth. Alif is also unabashedly wed to youth culture--there's even a "your mom" joke--which is one of the aspects of the modern Arab world which Wilson set out to reveal. She brings us an every day, living room portion of the Middle East which does not reach us through our television news. For that reason alone, this book is worth reading.

Full review on my blog.
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