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Alif the Unseen

3.83  ·  Rating Details  ·  11,204 Ratings  ·  2,012 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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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 — 492 voters
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane SatrapiDoes My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-FattahReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar NafisiTen Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-FattahAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Best Books by Muslim Women
5th out of 128 books — 205 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Rick Riordan
Feb 12, 2015 Rick Riordan rated it really liked it
Adult urban fantasy/cyberpunk. I picked this up because I loved the Ms. Marvel comics written by G. Willow Wilson, and while this is very, very different stuff, it was a fabulous read. Somehow I went into this thinking it was a middle grade or young adult novel. It's not. The content is quite dark and adult. It's the story of a twenty-something hacker living in an Arabic city state simply called The City. Alif is secretly in love with the daughter of a high-ranking family, and (SPOILER) when she ...more
Maggie Stiefvater
Nov 11, 2013 Maggie Stiefvater rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult, recommended
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
Jun 18, 2012 Catie rated it really liked it
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
Dec 04, 2013 Cassi aka Snow White Haggard rated it really liked it
Shelves: galleys, read-in-2012
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
May 17, 2013 Simon rated it it was ok
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
Feb 07, 2014 Carol. rated it really liked it
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
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
Mar 12, 2015 Rob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 02, 2013 Wendy rated it liked it
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,
Dec 04, 2012 Yahya rated it really liked it
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
May 23, 2013 Felicia rated it it was amazing
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
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
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,
Oct 14, 2015 Amel rated it it was ok
Shelves: novels

Potential spoilers are hidden

Let me break down my thoughts about this book from the moment I noticed it on GR till I turned its last page, because somewhere along the way something went really wrong. Here comes -often- those moments when I find myself putting a book down, pausing, looking around at all the glowing reviews and five star ratings, and asking myself the question... Did I read the same book? That was a disappointment!!

This b
Liviu Szoke
Am avut așteptări mult mai mari de la un roman totuși premiat cu World Fantasy, mai ales că poveștile cu parfum oriental mă atrag foarte tare. Însă n-a fost să fie, căci povestea mi s-a părut atât de încâlcită și de fragmentată, iar Alif un prostovan atât de mare, încât pur și simplu nu am reușit să rezonez cu nimic. Singurul personaj atrăgător al poveștii mi s-a părut Vikram Vampirul, care, pe alocuri, este pur și simplu genial. Nu mult în urma lui vine și NewQuarter, dar nu se compară totuși c ...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.

Mar 03, 2016 Zanna rated it really liked it
Recommended to Zanna by: Carol.
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
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
Kayıp Rıhtım
Günümüz fantastik edebiyat okurunun en büyük sorunu artık pek az orijinal eserle karşılaşabilmesidir. Neyse ki arada çok nadiren de olsa “Artık beni hiçbir şey şaşırtamaz,” diyen okurları bile ters köşeye yatırmayı başarabilen farklı eserler de çıkıp yüzümüze çılgınca bir sırıtış yerleştirebiliyor. G. Willow Wilson’ın kaleme aldığı Elif de işte tam da bu sınıfa giren kitaplardan biri.

Elif konusunu iki sağlam temele dayandırıyor. Bunlardan ilki Kur’an-ı Kerim’deki her kelimenin aslında birden faz
May 03, 2012 Dot rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 04, 2012 Wil rated it it was ok
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
Jonathan Strahan
Dec 04, 2013 Jonathan Strahan rated it really liked it
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
Oct 09, 2012 Nnedi rated it it was amazing
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 really liked it
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
Jul 09, 2012 Gary the Bookworm rated it really liked it
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
Jun 20, 2012 Martin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fantasy
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
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
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
Mar 15, 2016 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: jilted hackers, veiled American academics, djinns with computer viruses
Taking place in an unnamed country in the Middle East, Alif the Unseen is a mix of alternate history/contemporary political thriller with fantasy elements.

Alif, the eponymous main character, is a pseudonym for a young hacker in an autocratic Islamic country where he is a poor immigrant offering anonymity and Internet access to anyone who wants it. He helps Islamists, secularists, feminists, religious minorities, anyone who wants to evade the state's Internet firewall and ever-present monitoring.
Mar 01, 2014 terpkristin rated it it was amazing
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
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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” 53 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.” 29 likes
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