In Alif the Unseen, author G. Willow Wilson creates a fantasy world with a twist. While hackers battle state censorship online, djinn and mythical beings lurk just out of sight. If you’ve ever wondered whether supernatural creatures can use a computer, this is the book for you.
Written in the lead up to the Arab Spring, this novel blends religion with political activism. The main character is a tech genius in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. Known as ‘Alif’ (his online hacker handle), he fights state censorship one keystroke at a time. Alif hides his clients’ online actions protecting them from the wrath of chief censor, ‘The Hand’.
Away from his computer screen, Alif is more mundane. He lives with his mother in a modest apartment and bickers with Dina, the devout girl-next-door. Both are unaware of his illicit (and monumentally risky) affair with a beautiful aristocrat he met online.
Alif’s life slides out of control when he’s jilted by his upper-class girlfriend and, after discovery by The Hand, forced to go on the run. An ancient book sent to him by his former lover pushes him into the realm of the djinn, where maths and myth collide.
Politics and Privilege
Like many fantasy stories, Alif the Unseen boils down to a battle between good and evil but G. Willow Wilson also focuses on inequality. The reader is shown the gap between aristocrats of Alif’s city and poorer migrant workers, the disparity between men and women, and the difference between Alif and his friends’ risky lives to his “coddled”, comparatively safe British and American counterparts.
Alif fights against state oppression but he isn’t a shining example of political correctness. He offers a backhanded compliment to Dina’s quick thinking, saying “you weren’t even nervous. For a minute I forgot you were a girl” and views his mother’s domestic helper purely as “the maid”. However, don’t let this push you away from the book. It’s Alif’s flaws that make him believable. He matures (partly thanks to Dina and the wonderful djinn, Vikram the Vampire) throughout the story.
To me, the most interesting person here is Dina, Alif’s childhood friend and neighbour. She refuses to compromise her principles, choosing to veil her face despite opposition from her own family. Pragmatic and strong willed, Dina risks herself to help Alif and shows herself to be one of the novel’s most insightful characters.
Verdict: A exciting blend of myth, magic and modern day activism. This novel crosses multiple genres and is well worth a read.