Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen

4.3 23
by G. Willow Wilson
     
 

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In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a

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Overview

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in an unnamed Arab emirate, Wilson’s intriguing, colorful first novel centers on a callow Arab-Indian computer hacker who calls himself “Alif,” the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif surreptitiously creates digital protection, at a price, for Islamic dissidents being threatened by the chief of state security (aka “the Hand of God”). When Intisar, Alif’s aristocratic beloved, opportunistically throws Alif over for the Hand, he flees into the desert, along with a female neighbor, Dina, pursued by the Hand. Dina carries the 700-year-old jinn-dictated The Thousand and One Days (the inverse of The Thousand and One Nights), which contains secrets disguised in stories that may help Alif remake his world. Wilson (The Butterfly Mosque, a memoir) provocatively juxtaposes ancient Arab lore and equally esoteric computer theory, highlighting the many facets of the East-West conflict while offering few insights, to some readers’ regret, into possible resolutions of that conflict. 10-city author tour. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins & Associates. (July)
Library Journal
Known for her award-winning memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, and her comics (Cairo; Air), Wilson instills imaginative storytelling in her debut novel set in the modern Middle East. Alif, a hacker by trade who provides systems security for the rich and poor alike, falls in love with a young woman from a privileged family. She is engaged to a member of the state police who is leading the hunt for the secret programming code Alif unwittingly created. Following the clues in an ancient manuscript titled The Thousand and One Days, Alif allies himself with his Muslim neighbor, an American convert, the sheikh of the local mosque, and an army of shapeshifting jinn to solve the code. VERDICT Wilson skillfully weaves a story linking modern-day technologies and computer languages to the folklore and religion of the Middle East. For readers ready for adventure and looking for original storytelling, this excellent novel supersedes genres as easily as its characters jump from one reality to another. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/12.]—Catherine Lantz, Morton College Lib., Cicero, Il
Kirkus Reviews
Modern hacker culture and ancient Muslim mysticism collide in the debut work of fiction from Wilson, better known as a graphic novelist. Alif, the pseudonym of the Arab-Indian hero of this novel, is a young hacker living in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, providing support to various groups who want to avoid government censors. Heartbroken when he discovers his love has been betrothed to another man, Alif writes a program that can help him secretly detect her online activity, but the program catches the attention of the government, setting in motion a convoluted series of adventures involving an ancient Arabian Nights-esque tome called the Alf Yeom, religious leaders, otherworldly creatures and, quite literally, the girl next door. The most engaging members of this menagerie arrive early, including Vikram the Vampire, an imposing guide to the world of the jinn, and a female American Muslim-convert who sheds light on the mysterious text. Both give Wilson an opportunity to explore the more mystical elements of the Koran in particular and Islam in general, and she also clears plenty of room to discuss repressive regimes and East-West understandings. The novel is timely, especially as it surges toward an Arab Spring-themed conclusion. But though Wilson, a Muslim convert (documented in her 2010 memoir, The Butterfly Mosque), displays a savvy knowledge of Muslim arcana, the story is overstuffed with left turns and a host of characters and bogs down in jargon about hacker tools and techniques. Given relatively short shrift are samples from the Alf Yeom itself, which, when they do appear, offer some wry fables that are engaging in their simplicity. Larger doses of those stories' pithiness and charm would give this thriller more spirit. Wilson displays an admirable Neil Gaiman-esque ambition that isn't quite matched by this oft-plodding tale.
The Washington Post
G. Willow Wilson's marvelous first novel…takes events similar to those of the Arab Spring, adds a runaway computer virus, an unconventional love story and the odd genie to create an intoxicating, politicized amalgam of science fiction and fantasy…Alif the Unseen confronts some of the most pressing concerns of our young century, but it's also hugely entertaining. Wilson has a Dickensian gift for summoning a city and peopling it with memorable characters…
—Elizabeth Hand
The New York Times Book Review
…Wilson's fast-paced, imaginative first novel…defies easy categorization. Is it literary fiction? A fantasy novel? A dystopian techno-thriller? An exemplar of Islamic mysticism, with ties to the work of the Sufi poets? Wilson seems to delight in establishing, then confounding, any expectations readers may have…For those who view American fiction as provincial, or dominated by competent but safe work, Wilson's novel offers a resounding, heterodox alternative.
—Pauls Toutonghi
The New York Times
…[Ms. Wilson] has her own fertile imagination and fanciful narrative style…as an American convert to Islam who divides her time between the United States and Egypt, she has an unusual ability to see the best of both worlds. In Alif the Unseen she spins her insights into an exuberant fable that has thrills, chills and—even more remarkably—universal appeal.
—Janet Maslin
From the Publisher

Praise for Alif the Unseen

“G. Willow Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic, and the kind of smart, honest writing mind that knits together and bridges cultures and people. You should read what she writes.”—Neil Gaiman, author of Stardust and American Gods

“[A] Harry Potterish action-adventure romance [that] unfolds against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. . . . A bookload of wizardry and glee.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Outrageously enjoyable . . . The energetic plotting of Philip Pullman, the nimble imagery of Neil Gaiman and the intellectual ambition of Neal Stephenson are three comparisons that come to mind.”—Salon.com

“An intoxicating, politicized amalgam of science fiction and fantasy . . . that integrates the all-too-familiar terrors of contemporary political repression with supernatural figures from The Thousand and One Nights.”—Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

“Open the first page and you will be forced to do its bidding: To read on.”—Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Out of Oz

“A magical book. The supernatural and sociopolitical thriller Alif the Unseen is timely literary alchemy, a smart, spirited swirl of current events and history; religion and mysticism; reality and myth; computer science and metaphysics. . . . Alif the Unseen richly rewards believers in the power of the written word.”—The Seattle Times

“[An] excellent modern fairytale . . . [Wilson] surpasses the early work of Stephenson and Gaiman, with whom comparisons have already been made. . . . Alif the Unseen will find many fans in both West and East. They will appreciate it for being just the fine story it is and as a seed for potent ideas yet to come.”—io9.com

“A book of startling beauty and power.”—Holly Black, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles

Alif the Unseen . . . defies easy categorization. Is it literary fiction? A fantasy novel? A dystopian techno-thriller? An exemplar of Islamic mysticism, with ties to the work of the Sufi poets? Wilson seems to delight in establishing, then confounding, any expectations readers may have.”—Pauls Toutonghi, New York Times Book Review

“A fast-paced, thrilling journey between two worlds, the seen world of human beings and the unseen world of the supernatural.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.”—Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts

“A delirious urban fantasy which puts the unlikely case for religion in an age of empowering and intrusive technology.”—The Guardian (UK)

Alif the Unseen is a terrific metaphysical thriller, impossible to put down. The fantastical world Alif inhabits—at once recognizable and surreal, visible and invisible—is all the more fantastic for the meticulously detailed Koranic theology and Islamic mythology Wilson expertly reveals. A multicultural Harry Potter for the digital age.”—Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollahs’ Democracy and The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

Alif the Unseen is a true chimera. . . . There are few authors who can pull off dealing with religion, dogma, and mysticism as well as sci-fi, and Wilson is one of them. Alif the Unseen contains elements that will appeal to fans of the ecstatic digital visions The Neuromancer, devotees of the mythological richness of The Thousand and One Nights, international-news junkies and fellow hacktivists.”—Tor.com

“Written just before the Arab Spring, this wild adventure mixes the digital derring-do of Neal Stephenson with the magic of The Thousand and One Nights. . . . Alif the Unseen is a rich blend of storytelling magic.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“An ambitious, well-told, and wonderful story. Alif the Unseen is one of those novels that has you rushing to find what else the author has written, and eagerly anticipating what she’ll do next.”—Matt Ruff, author of Fool on the Hill and The Mirage

“Passion, power, and technology converge in this imaginative novel.”—Oprah.com

“Imaginative . . . Brilliant . . . Alif the Unseen . . . draws on Islamic theology, the hacking underworld, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, spy thrillers, and the events of the Arab Spring to weave an ‘urban fantasy’ in which the everyday and the supernatural collide. . . . A first novel that is witty, imaginative, and unorthodox in all senses.”—The Observer (UK)

“Willow Wilson is an awesome talent. She made her own genre and rules over it. Magical, cinematic, pure storytelling. It’s nothing like anything. A brilliant fiction debut.”—Michael Muhammad Knight, author of The Taqwacores

“Wilson manages to keep the various fantastical, technological, political and religious plates spinning without ever losing track of the story, or getting bogged down in polemic. . . .Though Alif the Unseen was recently compared to Harry Potter . . . it has more in common with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.”—The National (UAE)

“One of the most compelling narratives you’ll read this year, Alif offers masterful insight into contemporary Middle Eastern societies whose ongoing transformations are as unexpected and profound as those in our own. It is also a powerful reminder of how far fantasy has come since Tolkien.”—Jack Womack, author of Random Acts of Senseless Violence

“An intriguing mix of fantasy, romance and spirituality wrapped up in cyberthriller packaging. . . . Wilson’s desert fantasy moves at the breakneck speed of a thriller through cityscapes, wilderness and ethereal realms as she skillfully laces mythology and modernity, spirituality and her own unique take on technological evolution. . . . Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind story, both contemporary and as ancient as the Arabian sands.”—Shelf Awareness (online)

“Wilson writes beautifully, tells a great story, and even makes computer hackery seem like magic.”—Sunday Times (UK)

“The real magic of Alif the Unseen is catching a talented writer early in her career.”—Rita Mae Brown

“Outstanding . . . Wilson’s novel delights in bending genres and confounding expectations: It’s both a literary techno-thriller and a fantasy that takes religion very seriously. . . . Alif the Unseen . . . is one of the most inventive, invigorating novels of the year.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“A fantasy thriller that takes modern Islamic computer hackers fighting against State-based repression and entangles that with the fantastical Djinn-riddled world of One Thousand and One Nights. . . . Like a novelization of one of Joss Whedon’s best Buffy episodes crossed with a Pathé newsreel of the Arab Spring uprisings. It’s a page-turner.”—The Austin Chronicle

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802120205
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
06/19/2012
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.60(d)

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