Target: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen
Profile: Modern Fantasy, Religious Fiction
Alif the Unseen is honestly one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory. It practically sparkles with fresh ideas and invigorating prose. Like Throne of the Crescent Moon, I picked up Alif on the recommendation of io9.com’s best speculative fiction of 2012 list, and out of a desire to read more non-Eurocentric fantasy. But the two books shouldn’t even be compared. Alif is on a completely different level of fiction, the same level occupied by giants like China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaimen’s American Gods, or perhaps more saliently, his Anansi Boys.
The novel is also a triumph of multiculturalism. The author, G. Willow Wilson, an American journalist who converted to Islam and moved to Cairo where she wrote for a number of magazines and newspapers, has written a magnificent window into contemporary Middle Eastern culture, and one that stand surprisingly accessible to readers who might not know anything about the history or culture of this incredibly interesting and diverse region. Where Saladin Ahmed utterly failed to connect with the richness of Arabian and Islamic mythology in his Crescent Moon, Wilson has succeeded in stunning fashion.
Read the rest of the review…
This book has been on my Amazon wishlist for a while; each time I thought about ordering it, something else seemed more compelling. I wish I hadn’t waited so long (thank you, public library, for making reading on a whim so easy!) to read what turned out to be a quite engaging, modern urban fantasy.
At the beginning of the story, set in an unnamed Middle Eastern military state, we meet The protagonist, Alif,who takes his online handle from the first letter of the alphabet. Out of high school, but barely, Alif is a hacker genius who, from the apartment he shares with his mother, runs a cloud where all types of dissidents are able to digitally converse, and stay hidden from The Hand, the head of the State’s electronic security force. When Alif is jilted by his aristocratic lover for a prince that can provide her the lifestyle to which she is accustomed, a chain of events is set in motion that has widespread implications for the future of this country and the revolutionaries fed up with the status quo.
Wilson deflty weaves a story that combines the seen and unseen, religion and philosophy, and a struggle for life and death — not just for the characters involved, but for the world itself. Driven underground in an effort to evade The Hand’s henchmen, Alif and his closest friend, Dina, are forced to seek aid from the underworld…and the unseen world. Ancient Arabic/Muslim themes, djinn and other magical beasts, and current political ideas are brought together in unique and surprising ways. From the first page the book has an energy that speaks to modern times but draws upon ideas from the fantastical ancient world. With the energy of the Arab Spring, the book offers a modern view of the Arab world that is hard to put down.