ALIF THE UNSEEN by G.Willow Wilson, 433 pages, Grove Press, Prices vary at Amazon
Review by Joe Taylor
Alif is the first letter of the Arabic Alphabet. It’s also the handle of “The City’s” number one hacker. In his early twenties, Alif rarely leaves his room except for meals. Sometimes he leaves the monitor lit darkness for some sun on the roof, or for a quick jaunt to see his friend Abdullah at his computer shop, Radio Shiekh. Life is as normal as life can be in a police state for Alif, protecting a list of clients ranging from communists to Isamists from the censoring intrusions by “The State”.
It’s normal that is, until he gets dumped by his upper class girl friend who he hopes to marry. Her marriage has been arranged by her father and she tells him she can’t hear from him again. That’s when he develops a program to detect the essence of a person as they type on a computer, so that she may never find him again. But love will out. As a final gesture he sends her a gift and to his misfortune he receives an ancient book as a gift in return.
You see, the book is the original Alf Yeom a book dictated by a jinn and holds the key to the other side. And the man who wants it is the head of State Security with an evil plan for the powers the book possesses. How can such a small book be such a great source of woe?
Set in a fictional Arabic police state called the City, Alif the Unseen is rich with the magic of the Arab world, peopled with Djinn,(Genies) and other lesser spirits that inhabit the “Other World”. Here, even the Djinn avail themselves of the internet and find themselves (humorously) just as troubled by computer viruses as we do in the world of humans. And as smart as Alif is on the computer, he couldn’t have made it without the help of an upright Imam who sacrifices everything he’s known to help the young hacker escape; he’s one of the most endearing characters in the book.
But this is not just a fanciful tale of ancient books and spirits; Ms Wilson skillfully weaves into her story the role that Islam plays in the lives of young people falling in love amidst the strictures of the religion that dominates their culture, and weaves the Arab awakening into the plot. When Alif falls into the hands of the secret police, the author convinces us of the power that a lightless cell can have over the human mind.
Alif the Unseen is excellent story telling, acted out with characters who are endearing, never over written, and in the case of the Imam, written with such tenderness that the reader can feel the man breathe and hear his calm heart beat in their own.
Yaroos! gives Alif the Unseen by G.Willow Wilson 5 stars out of 5.