Alif the Unseen – G Willow Wilson

Although this may be her debut novel, G Willow Wilson has been writing professionally for over a decade, as a journalist on Cairo Magazine and with numerous series and graphic novels through Vertigo and DC Comics including Air, Cairo and two issues of Superman. Here her fascination with the mysteries of the Middle East where she lived for many years have taken shape in a modern adventure which has one foot in the shifting sands of history and myth and the other in the modern world of politics and the digital.

Alif is the online name of a young hacktivist who runs services to shield his clients from the scrutiny of the state security in the unnamed city where he resides in the Old Quarter, one of the poorer districts, though near the University and the Al Basheera mosque, reflections of the modern and the ancient in a city of many divisions. Across the city resides Intisar, with whom Alif has a secret relationship, but when she announces her engagement to a suitor of higher social standing he chooses to deny her and effectively blind himself to her existence, creating a program to identify all her online activities and ensure her presence can never interact with his.

When the program exceeds his expectations and draws the aggressive attention of the security services, a bad coincidence steals Alif away from his life, his neighbour Dina whisked along with him, into a world of danger on the run, for Intisar’s parting gift to him, an ancient copy of the Alf Yeom, is a sought after artefact of great power, which will take Alif and Dina on a journey into a realm previously only dimly perceived where their belief and faith will be tested and reaffirmed.

The hidden city which coexists with the known is a standard urban fantasy preoccupation from Aaronovitch to Gaiman to Miéville, and while the desert setting of a man on the run from powerful forces who would hurt his family resembles Dune, features such as the Immovable Alley render the tone more in the vein of Harry Potter, and coupled with the youthful protagonists, the feel is of a young adult adventure story rather than a novel. The peril is distant enough to feel artificial, driving the story without active threat for much of the novel, the villains shallow and selfish, barely restraining their urge to twirl moustaches, daring escapes from their clutches mediated through contrivances.

The charm of the  book is in the supporting characters, Sheikh Bilal, warm and serene in his devotion, Dina, smarter, wiser and more forgiving than Alif ever realised, and the Vikram and Sakina, the brother and sister djinn who become their guides and protectors. Most interesting is the Convert, whom we never truly come to know, who despite her elegant headscarf and desire to master the language is regarded as an outsider, an American intruder with arrogant ways, questioned about her conversion, her belief, her faith, her piety, raising the question of how much of the author, a convert to Islam herself, is recounting her own experiences of prejudice.

It is through these characters that some of the most interesting discussions in the book are voiced: the Convert points out that Westerners are less able to move and adapt, expecting their destination to conform to them – while Kazuo Ishiguro can pen Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, has any Westerner ever written a great novel of the East? – while Vikram explains that the differences in languages mean that any conversion of a text is inevitably an interpretation rather than a direct translation, and how the text of the Quran has adapted, the example given of a sixth century word for the smallest identifiable object currently defined as “atom” but which did not originally have that meaning, but as understanding has changed the meaning has changed so the truth of it is preserved.

Wilson creates a great sense of place, of belonging, of family and order, even viewed from the sidelines by Alif, and the prose is a warm breeze over bleached sand and stone, carrying exotic scents and voices, and Alif the Unseen is a very different take on something that has been done many times in recent years, the digital thriller – Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn and Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam being just two examples, and the Arabian flavour, specifically the One Thousand and One Nights, was also reflected in a science fictional mirror by Hannu Rajaniemi in The Fractal Prince, though at a much higher tech level.

Enchantments and linguistic discussions aside, twice the novel quite literally falls into the narrative get-out-of-jail-free card of deus ex machina, events driven by computer programs channelling mystical text uploaded onto the internet, and while the genuine power of a dissident with a laptop was confirmed in the Arab Spring, the corresponding real world drama of the conclusion feels unsatisfying and simplistic given the promises made before.


Alif the Unseen is now available in paperback from Corvus Books



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