Book Review: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen

Posted March 22, 2014 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen

in Hardcover edition on June 19, 2012 and has 433 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon., Barnes & NobleKobo.

The story swaps back and forth between Alif’s adventures and the advice the Princess Farukhuaz is being plied with by her nurse, much as The Thousand and One Nights flips back and forth between the princess telling stories to stay alive for one more night.

My Take

The Internet’s call for freedom and its unseen ability to rouse a people clashes against a religion interpreted to keep the oppressive in power in a fun, romantic, and terrifying adventure that spans the digital world of programming; the mystical with its jinn, effrit, and spirits; and, the repressive state of a nameless Middle Eastern country. Its hero is a squealing child who mans up and discovers the truth of those around him while Dina is the secret strength behind it all, LOL. The weaker sex? Pshaw.

Alif the Unseen is a story which coasts as does Alif before it dips into a deeper understanding, using the everyday-ness of Alif going about his day, a rebellious, spoiled teen with an affinity for the computer — no difference there between this Muslim boy and an American computer nerd, LOL. Where it differs from a “typical” American household is the lack of questions as Alif does as he pleases, the casual ease with which Alif accepts the pampering by his mother and the maid, the foods his mother tempts him with, the interactions between men and women, the dress, the worries, the…well, everything. It’s Alif mourning the loss of his minted yogurt and the fragrance of chickpea flour reminding him of home. It’s detached and yet inclusive. I don’t know this culture, and yet the inner emotions of missing home, of wanting life to go back to the comfortable and expected, the fear all speak to everyman and pull us in.

The external is an interesting look inside an unhappy people’s thoughts. Is it fiction? Or is it a reflection of how people really think? It certainly makes me appreciate my “sanitary postal code and tidy laws” where we have hot-and-cold running water and 24/7 electricity everywhere. A country where we can freely speak our minds — hey, NSA, you listenin’?

Some one-offs…
Ha, I like what Wilson says about the Philosopher’s Stone! I think Vikram’s been watching too many Star Wars‘ movies *she says with a laugh* And there’s the convert’s frustration with Vikram and Alif…she’s right, too. Page 157. Nor is it a sentiment restricted to non-Westerners. Every group of people reacts the same way to another whom they don’t trust or understand.

“I like what Dina says about books, that people will insist “books can change the world” when they feel good about themselves, and “it’s only a book when anybody challenges them.”

The Story

A love affair gone wrong stimulates Alif into playing with a software program that, in theory, can find anyone based on their rhythms, how they use language.

The success of that keystroke logger program and the Alf Yeom set the Hand on Alif’s trail, and

The Characters

Alif (Mohammed) is an Indian-Arab computer hacker/programmer protecting the discontented, who is in love with a girl above his station. His father has another, more legitimate family. Dina is a neighbor’s daughter whom Alif has known all his life.

Intisar is from a wealthy Arab family and sneaks out to meet Alif. Abbas Al Shehab is the man her family intends for her to marry.

Abdullah runs the local Radio Sheikh and collaborates with Alif. Faris is one of Abdullah’s moles in the Ministry of Information. Raj is very enterprising with cellphones. Nargis is their in with Vikram.

Some of those whom Alif protects include:
Jahil69 whose porn site infuriates the Saudis. TrueMartyr and Umar_Online push for Islamic revolution. Jai_Pakistan, OpenFist99, and TheRealHamada have their own issues.

Vikram the Vampire is a black market thug and a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit legend, who can change shape. Azalel is Vikram’s sister, a sila, and grateful to Alif. The convert is an American woman in town to study history at the university. She has converted to Islam, but I suspect it’s mostly for how much easier it makes her life. Sheikh Bilal is in charge of the Al Basheera mosque where Alif takes refuge. Prince Abu Talib Al Mukhtar ibn Hamza, a.k.a., NewQuarter01, is angry with the system.

Tin Sari is the keystroke logger program that Alif modifies. The banu adam are the mud people, us.

The Hand works for the State and is feared by the hackers.

Reza is the Persian mystic, a member of a heretic sect, the Battini connected to the Assassins, who writes the story of the Alf Yeom wa Yeom, The Thousand and One Days, as told him by a jinn and containing “all the parallel knowledge of my people, preserved for the benefit of future generations”. The Moqlas manuscript. The princess’ nurse tells Princess Farukhuaz stories intended to engage her interest in marriage.

The Empty Quarter…
…is the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts. Sakina is one of the good jinn. Shaytan is an outcast jinn. I picture the fiercely protective marid as the genie from the Disney movie, Aladdin, with his huge torso and a tapering swirl of smoke for his legs.

The Cover and Title

The cover has a bright yellow background with a Moorish-style arch bordering the top and bottom with a maze of green-on-green geometric designs. The edge is picked out on either side in a very light green with the darker center. The first word in the title, the Alif, is the green of a computer circuit board, complete with lines of solder.

The title is a trick of the book, for it writes its own chapters, O Alif the Unseen, for you may hide behind a new name, but the bits and bytes of the Internet are not unseen.