Friday 31 August 2012

Book Review | Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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"I will tell you a story, but it comes with a warning: when you hear it, you will become someone else."

He calls himself Alif - few people know his real name - a young man born in a Middle Eastern city that straddles the ancient and modern worlds. When Alif meets the aristocratic Intisar, he believes he has found love. But their relationship has no future—Intisar is promised to another man and her family's honour must be satisfied. As a remembrance, Intisar sends the heartbroken Alif a mysterious book. Entitled The Thousand and One Days, Alif discovers that this parting gift is a door to another world—a world from a very different time, when old magic was in the ascendant and the djinn walked amongst us.

With the book in his hands, Alif finds himself drawing attention - far too much attention - from both men and djinn. Thus begins an adventure that takes him through the crumbling streets of a once-beautiful city, to uncover the long-forgotten mysteries of the Unseen. Alif is about to become a fugitive in both the corporeal and incorporeal worlds. And he is about to unleash a destructive power that will change everything and everyone—starting with Alif himself.


"G. Willow Wilson was living in Egypt when she started writing Alif the Unseen in 2010. The fictional revolution in the book became a reality in Spring 2011 when ordinary people across many Middle Eastern countries rose up against their rules."

So reads the press release that accompanied my copy of G. Willow Wilson's tour-de-force debut, giving great weight to this exquisite tale of tales wherein a young man from an unnamed emirate comes into possession of an ancient text long thought lost, codes from its pages a program that could change the way we see the world, and becomes, finally, a figurehead in the fight against corruption in the government — all in the name of love.


Love is at the heart of Alif the Unseen. Love is what makes it so very special. In the first, Alif's love for Intisar, a princess of sorts to his digitally literate street rat. They've been seeing one another for many a moon, as of the outset; courting, of course, in a clandestine sense. But when Intisar is promised to a man closer to her social stature than the grey hat (read hacker) who has fallen for her, their affair comes to a crushing conclusion.

In the aftermath, all Alif has left of the love of his life is the Alf Yeom, literally The Thousand and One Days: a book of stories that is "the inverse, the overturning" (p.96) of The Thousand and One Nights, purportedly written not by people, but magical creatures.

And in the margins, Intisar's fascinating annotations:
The suggestion that the Alf Yeom is the work of a djinn is surely a curious one. The Quran speaks of the hidden people in the most candid way, yet more and more the educated faithful will not admit to believing in them, however readily they might accept even the harshest and most obscure points of Islamic law. That God has ordained that a thief must pay for his crime with his hand, that a woman must inherit half of what a man inherits — these things are treated not only as facts, but as obvious facts, whereas the existence of conscious beings we cannot see - and all the fantastic and wondrous things that their existence suggests and makes possible - produces profound discomfort among precisely that cohort of Muslims most lauded for their role in that religious "renaissance" presently expected by western observers: young degree-holding traditionalists. Yet how hollow rings a tradition in which the law, which is subject to interpretation, is held as sacrosanct, yet the word of God is not to be trusted when it comes to His description of what He has created.

I do not know what I believe. (p.104)
Intisar's crisis of faith is but the impetus behind the majestic vision quest Alif embarks on thereafter: the outcome is still a ways away. And would that it were still further, for this is a fantastic first novel!

I should stress that G. Willow Wilson has been published in the past. In 2010, The Butterfly Mosque - a memoir about her conversion to Islam - attracted an array of acclaim, and her name will be fairly familiar to comic book fans: she scripted the late, lamented Vertigo series AIRMystic for Marvel, and her credits also include a couple of fill-in issues for Superman. So Wilson isn't averse to a little seeming silliness, nor to more inwardly meaningful matters, such as class, censorship, fear and belief. In Alif the Unseen, she takes the high road and the low, trading on both areas of expertise to create a story about stories that stands out from the first word.

That said, the Alif is both more and less than a word. It is the first letter of Sura Al Baqara in the Quran; it is the first line of code ever written; it is a state of mind, a suggestion, a symbol that our hero becomes - inasmuch as it becomes him - over the course of this remarkable fantasy narrative. Alif "had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif — a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful that what it concealed." (p.3)

Alif the Unseen, too, conceals a great deal. The initial simplicity of the Aladdin-esque romance with which it begins belies the book's more challenging aspects. Seductive as it is, this early section seems fleeting when set against the heady concoction of faith, torture and politics that fuels its unforgettable finale. Indeed, these ends are so at odds that one can only imagine the inevitable clash, yet instead, Wilson shapes a careful, character-driven commingling — a thing both beautiful and terrible to behold.

Speaking of which, as easy as our characters are to grasp at the outset, as Alif the Unseen progresses they resonate with both emotional depth and intellectual complexity. Particularly when Intisar's part is played, Alif and his childhood friend Dina develop majestically, and the people (and the creatures) they meet on their journey - both within themselves and outwith the world they know - are fantastic fancies, finely described.

Alif the Unseen is an extraordinary novel, written with a hypnotic naturalness that reminded this reader of Neil Gaiman, whose blurb adorns the front cover of Corvus' delightfully designed British edition. He writes that "G. Willow Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic," to which assertion I would append a few further words about the part of Alif the Unseen that left a lasting impression on me: namely its rightfully abiding interest in matters of the heart.

A book to treasure, truly.


Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson

UK Publication: September 2012, Corvus
US Publication: June 2012, Grove Press

Buy this book from /
IndieBound / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

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  1. I'm currently reading it—and very much enjoying it—but the Kindle edition has some gobbledy-gook (very minimal—I don't want this to be perceived as a "the book formatting is horrible" tirade) where I assume the print book contained Arabic symbols/characters (or images).

    I only mention it because I'd like see what was meant to be there (in place of the gobbledy-gook) without having to buy the book twice.

    Chapters One & Two... something related to "Tapping on the wall" (two identical occurances).

    And in Chapter Eight ... a symbol is referred to seven times.

    Ignore this request if it's not your cup of tea, but I'm just looking for some verification that in the print book, there's something beautiful there instead of p‘~ and ºyw respectively. :)

  2. Author here! We've had a frustrating time getting Arabic words to format correctly in the digital editions. I thought it had been sorted out, but apparently it hasn't. Thanks for the heads-up.

    1. Not a problem. Like I said ... pretty minor compared to some ebook formatting atrocities I've been witness to. I know short of embedding fonts (and even then, some right-to-left languages are still left hanging high and dry right now, ebook-wise), it can be pretty frustrating ensuring that non-ascii characters are represented properly across the range of reading devices/formats available now. I speak from experience. ;)

      Good luck with the book, and don't let the electronic edition get you down. It'll get worked out. It's a great piece of writing!

  3. Oh, that's unfortunate... but not especially surprising, I suppose. Here's hoping the publisher addresses these issues sooner rather than later.

    On the subject of ebook atrocities - as you say, Doug - I see the US edition of the new Sandman Slim novel was released missing about a third of the text. You'd think someone would notice before it hit the Kindle, huh?

  4. What a great review. If I don't win this book I will definitely have to buy it!

  5. UK publisher of Alif here - thanks for highlighting the problem, Doug. Is it the US or UK ebook you're reading? I've made sure our production team are on it to make sure any formatting issues can be rectified!

    1. I bought it from from the US, so I'm assuming it's the US version. Yep... I'm seeing Grove Press, New York.

      Kindle locations 180-192, 456-466: two occurrences of p‘~

      Kindle locations 3523-3558: seven occurrences of ºyw

  6. I've seen this book pop up quite a lot. I need to pick it up because it really does sound fun. I like that you mention the Muslim aspect here because, having taught many Arabic students, I get so annoyed only seeing a negative Muslim perspective.