August 17, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen By G. Willow Wilson
Available now from Grove Press (Grove/Atlantic)
Review copy

G. Willow Wilson wanted to talk to the literati, comic book geeks, and Muslims at once.  She wanted to write a book that was a dialogue between them.  In the process, she borrowed a bit from almost every genre and wrote a funny, affecting novel about the internet, revolution, and the many ways we can see the world.

Alif is a hacker specializing in providing security for other hackers, bloggers, anyone who wants to cover their tracks from the State.  He has a girlfriend, who he met over the internet, who leaves him for a rich fiance.  Her last request is to never see him again.  He complies, writing a program that can track any person by their typing patterns and blocking her from accessing his presence on the net.  Then her fiance, the Hand of God and the State's premier computer surveillance guy, hacks Alif's machine and gets the program.  But what he really wants in the copy of the Alf Yeom (The Book of a Thousand Days) given to Alif by Intisar.

By the time the book is though, Alif's allies will include jinn, an American convert, a holy man, a prince, and a pious neighbor.  He will  be repaid for saving someone's life unknowingly, survive a car wreck in the desert, and grow up a little.  Although no age is given for Alif, it's heavily implied that he's a teenager.  He certainly has a teenager's captious passions and lack of long-term planning.

I loved ALIF THE UNSEEN.  I loved how it revels in the powers of literature, belief, and the internet.  I like how handles are used, as legitimate identities, although there are some characters like Dina who need nothing but their real name and that's okay too.  I liked that there is a world of magic right beside out own, but few can see it because they're too busy being superstitious to actually believe in something.  I liked the strong sense of time and place.  I liked that Wilson clearly had something to say but didn't sacrifice story for didacticism. 

I know lots of literary types who having been raving over ALIF THE UNSEEN, exactly as Wilson wanted.  I think there's room for a large young adult and new adult audience as well.  ALIF THE UNSEEN, among the many other things it accomplishes, captures what it is like to be young.  It's a tale of being in over your head, of deciding when to be reverent, of being both crushed and new in love, and being awesome at computers but not knowing as much as older people about a bunch of important things.  All in all ALIF THE UNSEEN is a terrific, thrilling novel.  And you can be assured I'm going to look into reading Wilson's graphic novels.


  1. I just got this book through a trade! I've heard nothing but wonderful things, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it after your rave review. :)

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  2. I absolutely loved this book. Portrayal of women was quite unique. The jinni was my favourite character (but I am biased there - there is something about the jinn :) )

    Loved your review!

    1. You'd probably like THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI then!


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