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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – Alif The Unseen

Novel by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is aptly named: the book is built on a foundation of secrets and misdirections. The action of the novel takes place in an Emirate in the Gulf, although we never find out which Emirate. It is set in an unnamed city, simply called “The City” by its inhabitants, and follows the life of a hacker who does not like telling people (including the reader) his real name, preferring to hide behind his online avatar, Alif.

Alif offers his services to anybody who wants to hide from authority, be they pornographers, Islamists, or bloggers—his only concern is that information is circulated as widely as possible, free of the censorship of the government. G. Willow Wilson blends this Arabic cyberpunk setup with elements of the Thousand and One Nights to introduce an entirely different world of the unseen, a world populated by djinn and spirits, where the shadowy creature who runs an inn between the worlds will offer you bed and board if you agree to run a virus scan on its two-year-old Dell laptop.

It’s a strange yet attractive combination; a surprisingly good debut novel for Wilson. It’s certainly not perfect, featuring one of the most blatant examples of authorial insert that I’ve ever read in the character only known as ‘the convert’, an American convert to Islam living in the Middle East. G. Willow Wilson herself is, of course, an American convert to Islam living in the Middle East, so there’s a subtle parallel there. And without giving too much of the plot away, she quickly becomes a character who is as irritating as sand in a codpiece—a side character who steals time away from the story without adding anything to it that is particularly interesting, aside from a shoehorned Western perspective that is never required for the novel to be enjoyable.

But this is a minor quibble. For the most part, Wilson’s combination of technology, politics and magic makes for a fantastic read, and her style alternates between witty and melancholic. This is a particularly fantastic book if you are a fan of Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch, but want something different—good, urban fantasy with a Middle-Eastern setting.

 

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