I’ve decided that Alif the Unseen will be the book that everyone reads next year. I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment either, I think it’s a great story that’s easy to follow, has very interesting characters, a smidgen of magic and even the Internet-hacker aspect of the narrative is effortlessly accessible, whether you’re 14 or 49.*
I enjoyed the heck out of Alif the Unseen. G. Willow Wilson has written a magical mystery tour of life, the internet and everything, both seen and unseen. Wilson, best known as a graphic novelist, is an American who converted to Islam while attending Boston University. She deftly handles Islamic sensibilities and culture in a way that feels comfortable, and even familiar to western readers.
The protagonist, who goes by the handle Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a play on the 1s and 0s of his coding life—is half arab and half Indian. Alif lives in an unnamed Emirate state, a place where his life is invisible to many, not only because of his mixed-race heritage, but also because he works as a grey-hat hacker who helps others evade the Internet security forces who retain tight control of all information flowing into and out of his country.
Alif is in love with a girl, Intisar, whom he met online, and turns out to be from a very high-born family. They have met and consummated their relationship in secret, but there is little hope of their ever being together. It is Intisar who sets the story in motion when she lets Alif know that a marriage has been arranged between herself and a man highly placed in the government. She insists that, for their own safety, they must never meet again. Alif determines that not meeting should extend to their online lives as well, so he develops a program, Tin Sari, that will identify an individual, not through email or IP addresses, but by analyzing individual indicators, such as language usage, tone of voice, key stroke idiosyncrasies and other highly-individualized online affectations that can’t be disguised. Tin Sari works so well, that the head of the Internet Security Force, know as The Hand of God, picks up on Alif’s work and begins using it against him and his collaborators.
The stakes are raised when Intisar tries to help Alif by sending him a book of unknown provenance—obviously ancient—possibly transcribed by a mystic with connections to the unseen world of the Jinn. The Alf Yeom, or, A Thousand and One Days, becomes Alif’s map for solving the mystery of The Hand, finding his one true love, venturing into the magical world of the Unseen with an unlikely band of allies and supporting an Arab Spring-like uprising in his country.
There was not one chapter of this book I did not enjoy. Wilson writes with confidence and understanding of her characters and their motivations. Her descriptions of the Unseen world were vibrant in my mind’s eye and she elegantly connects the majesty of the written word with computer coding, attesting how each can be one thing on the surface, but reflective of a viewer’s perceptions, providing a unique experience each time one is reexamined. From start to finish, it was a fantastic ride.
*I have to note here, that I was disappointed in the use of some “bad” words, which seemed egregious mostly because they weren’t really necessary, and without them, I would absolutely hand this over to my 11 year old who would adore the story. I just not sure I want her reading an exclamation like “your mother’s c**t,” (twice), since I’m not entirely sure she’s ever heard the “c” word, and I don’t want her asking me what that means just yet.