Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, tells the story of a twenty-something hacker in an unnamed post-Arab-spring emirate. The book begins however with a man named Reza who has trapped a jinn and is forcing it to tell The Thousand and One Days–sort of a parallel Thousand and One Nights for the jinn. The jinn warns Reza that the stories are for the unseen and that the transcription will change him. As the next chapter opens, we meet Alif, his devout neighbor Dina, and his secret girlfriend Intisar, a very wealthy young woman from the Old Quarter, all living in a high-security state where hackers, techies, and webizens all fear The Hand–the vicious and efficient government organization which is cracking down brutally upon the online community. And to get the novel rolling, Alif, who supports anyone (“I’m a computer programmer. I help–I help whoever asks me.” “Meaning the Islamists?” “Islamists, anarchists, secularists–whoever asks.”) has gotten into trouble with the Hand, has been dropped by Intisar, and has been given possession of the Alf Yeom—the Thousand and One Days.
Alif the Unseen is fast-paced, shows character growth, and shares an interesting perspective on both Middle-Eastern culture, the nature of faith, and class and ethnicity (Alif is Dravidian and Bedouin). At times, the plot and characters could be more nuanced, but the narrative style and the well-described unseen world more than make up for a somewhat and sometimes foreseeable plot. Without giving too much away, the novel turns on the idea of how language might work–with the Quran’s each word having seven thousand layers of meaning, and the Alf Yeom where language shifts with each reader.
Early on, Alif and Dina meet Vikram the Vampire, who has canine-like legs, seems to be part smoke, and enjoys biting Alif at times–and from there they are on the run from the Hand, meeting jinn, princes, converts, and holy men as they tumble through both the high tech and the old world. This is a terrific book for those who like their fantasy blended with real life (as Alif would say, IRL), are interested in the middle east and it’s stories, like hackers and information, or simply like adventure novels.
Other books which might interest you: