Sunday, March 24, 2013

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Comparison to other books is the best way I can think of to describe G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, so I'm going to break from my usual method and list readalikes first. It has a little of each of these: Neuromancer (William Gibson); Habibi (Craig Thompson); Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson); For the Win (Cory Doctorow); The Ring of Solomon (Jonathan Stroud); Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor) and His Dark Materials trilogy (Philip Pullman). But Alif the Unseen is different from all of these, too.

It's urban fantasy set in a totalitarian state in today's Middle East. It's adventure fantasy that draws heavily on Islamic religious beliefs and the mythology of genies -- in and out of bottles. It's steeped in nerdy computer culture and anointed with romance. There's an ancient Persian book at its heart -- The Book of a Thousand Days -- whose arcane knowledge is either the prize or the curse.

The cast of characters is large, but the main ones are: Alif, a talented young computer hacker; Dina, Alif's devout next-door neighbour who has secretly loved him since they were children; a djinn known as Vikram the Vampire, and an American woman scholar who converted to Islam and is always referred to as "the convert."

"Only the Lord of Lord knows all, and He created the world three-parts unseen." Metaphysical discussion, and sometimes even proselytizing, weigh a little too heavily on the narrative. I also felt queasy whenever homosexuality was used to disparage another person ("pig-eating ass-coveter" and such like). Even so, I found Alif the Unseen a fresh and rewarding read.

I thought Wilson's earlier novel, Cairo, was even better. Cairo is a thriller with fantastical elements set in Egypt, created in graphic novel format in collaboration with artist M.K. Perker.

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