Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.19.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

Happy start to Passover, and a little later this weekend, happy Easter! Spring also tends to feel like a holiday all its own here in the Twin Cities. It’s been a long, frigid, snowy winter and I’m ready for warm weather. (Although I’m sure I’ll be decrying the hot sun and steam and sweat shortly. Give it a month.)

I’ve also been taking an unfortunate, unintentional holiday of sorts from reading lately. I just don’t have the headspace or energy to read. In addition to my health problems earlier this year, I’m also in the process of moving, which brings a ton of stress and headaches (the literal noise-and-paint-smell kind) with it. It’s going to be so nice once we’re finished, but holy smokes, I’m tired.

So while I’ve only read 9 books so far this year (ugh), I’ve predictably continued the book buying and acquiring apace, like any book lover worth their salt. Let’s dive in to this week’s titles! There are some serious good’uns here that I’m hoping will snap me out of my slump.


Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Alif the Unseen Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. 

When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.”

why I’m excited: It’s hard to pick just a few things to write about here. I love the way it seems to blend the real world and fantasy, I love YA stories about hacker teens rebelling against authoritarian governments (as cliché as it may be), and it’s awfully nice to see YA dystopi-fantasy (it’s a thing, right?) set outside a white and culturally Christian lens. The Middle Eastern futurist cover design is also quite lovely to behold. This looks like it will be a fun adventure.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Paying Guests Coverthe premise: In the aftermath of World War I, London is in upheaval, and so is the household of widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter Frances. Impoverished in their villa that was once full of servants and the men of the family, they are forced to take in lodgers, a modern couple n amed Lilian and Leonard Barber. Then “passions mount and frustration gathers” (from Goodreads)…and, it’s a Sarah Waters novel, so…yeah. Hell yeah!

why I’m excited: It’s a Sarah Waters novel! If you’re a bi, pan, or lesbian woman, ’nuff said. (If you’re not familiar with her work, she writes thrillingly plotted historical novels about women who love–and have hot sex with–other women.) My wife and I love her work (we bonded over it back in our baby lesbian days!), so I was happy to snap this one up when it was on sale for Kindle recently.

If you’re not sold yet, USA Today called it “volcanically sexy.” Nice.

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Here and Now and Then Coverthe premise: Kin Stewart seems like an ordinary man on the surface. He works in IT and lives in suburban San Francisco with his wife and daughter. But secretly he’s a time-traveling secret agent who got stranded in 1990s San Francisco from 2142 by mistake. He’s happy where he is and tells no one about his past, until his future rescue team shows up way too late to save him, but definitely on time to ruin his new family. Kin needs to fight against his own failing memory and his former bosses in order to protect his daughter, Miranda, from a future in which she never existed.

why I’m excited: This sounds like a sweet, simple read (despite all the time traveling) about family and love and memory. Its genre blending sounds super cool and I’m always a sucker for two-families stories (Kin apparently left one family back in 2142). I don’t have much else to say about this one except that it looks nice and is getting great reviews. What more do you need?

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Wild Beauty Coverthe premise: From Goodreads:

“For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.”

why I’m excited: This just sounds so lovely. It reminds me a little of Nova Ren Suma’s A Room Away from the Wolveswhich I read and was moved by so deeply I couldn’t even bring myself to review it. This also reminds me a little bit of the themes of memory and family in the movie Coco. (The name Nomeolvides translates to “don’t forget me.”) Stories about bonds between women, tragic love, and unreliable memory are total catnip for me. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon to this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!