Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen

4.3 23
by G. Willow Wilson, Sanjiv Jhaveri

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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…  See more details below


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

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
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

Months before Tunisians brought down their government, before Egyptians thronged Tahir Square, G. Willow Wilson was working on her first novel, Alif the Unseen, a love story set amid the Internet-fueled overthrow of an unnamed Arab regime. That alone is a nice setup. In Chapter Zero, though, as a man forces a jinn, or genie, to reveal its most secret stories, we see Wilson has bigger plans.

We start with Alif, a twenty-three-year-old hacktivist living somewhere in the Persian Gulf. For the last four years he has spent every waking hour helping his online clients evade the much-feared "Hand of God" ? the nom du terror of the state security police's lead strongman. The son of an Indian mother and an absentee Arab father, Alif finds himself forced to the edges of a society that prizes pure lineage. This hasn't stopped him from pursuing Intisar, a beautiful girl of noble birth. The two have signed a marriage contract ? downloaded from the Internet, of course ? and made love in Alif's bed. As we meet them, the course of young love has gone critically wrong: Intisar has decided to marry a family friend, and Alif is going a little bit nuts.

In a spasm of grief, he builds a botnet that can identify Intisar's online presence simply by how and what she types. It's a tour de force of surveillance software, one that any intelligence agency on the planet would kill to own. He names it Tin Sari, an anagram of his beloved's name, embeds it into her hard drive, and soon has her precise digital DNA. Poignantly, his motivation is less to stalk than to erase her online identity from his view, and vice versa: "By hiding from Intisar so completely, she could not return to him even if she wanted to, and he was spared the humiliation of knowing she would never try."

But the effects are far less personal. Within days, The Hand of God launches a series of attacks on Alif's computer so sophisticated and sustained that it's clear he has found and taken control of Tin Sari. At the same time, Alif is given an ancient book, the Alf Yeom, or "The Thousand and One Days" (counterpart to those fabled Nights), a mystical manuscript into which are coded the secrets of the universe. When Alif and his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina, return home from fetching the book, police are waiting at the house to arrest Alif.

With just the Alf Yeom and a laptop, Alif and Dina take off. So does Wilson's story. With the help of a black market thug known as Vikram the Vampire, whose physical form occasionally wavers into something less than human, they cross into the realm of the jinn, a shadowy parallel universe where they are not necessarily any safer.

Wilson, an American who wrote about her conversion to Islam in the well- received memoir The Butterfly Mosque, is also an award-winning graphic novelist. In that format, text and images vie for attention and require a special kind of concentration. Even without pictures, a similar density in the way Alif the Unseen unfolds sometimes gives this novel a bumpy feel. But this utterly original world, in which ancient folklore is woven with tomorrow's technology, proves irresistible. You welcome each new character, buy into each new crisis, and forgive if the author fumbles the narrative.

Though Alif is the protagonist, Dina is arguably the heroine of the story. An Arab girl who has chosen to veil herself, Wilson gives her depth and strength and dignity. She's the voice of reason in much of the book, and though hidden, never invisible. Here's Alif, falling for Dina as she cuts his hair:

He studied her feet as she shifted around his chair: they were unshod and coated in a layer of the fine iridescent dust of the Empty Quarter, making her seem like a jinn herself. Tendons moved beneath her skin as she went on tiptoe to inspect her work. The sight made Alif ache. He let his hand drop and ran one finger along the arch of her foot, and heard her gasp: the foot danced away. She did not admonish him.
Especially memorable are scenes that play out in the world of the jinn, such as the Immovable Alley, a stationary spot that's not always where you last left it, not because it moves, but because the world around it continues to shift. And then there's The Empty Quarter, where the jinn eat and sleep, and where Alif barters a meal in exchange for debugging a jinn's two-year-old Dell. It's not so much a hidden place as a simultaneous universe, concurrent with ours but unseen by all but a few. "It's only that you aren't quite here, you see," a jinn tells Alif, explaining why he's being ignored. "Or to put it another way, we're not wholly visible to each other."

As the violence between Alif and The Hand of God moves from the Internet and explodes onto the streets, the Arab Spring arrives. It's a big bang of a climax, with the Alf Yeom at its core. But it's the duality of her two worlds that Wilson is exploring here, explaining to us and, perhaps, to herself. A tale of the ghost in the machine, as told by the genie in the laptop.

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.

Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne

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)
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.”—

“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.”—

“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.”—

“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.”—

“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

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.

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Brilliance Audio
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Alif the Unseen 4.2 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 17 reviews.
Samantha_V More than 1 year ago
I was totally blown away by this book. It was not what I was expecting. If you thought genies were cartoon characters living in lamps like in Aladdin, think again. The genies (or jinn) in this book are both frightening, bizarre and yet totally relatable in an almost human way. (And funny too!) The cast of characters is incredibly diverse, and each has his/her own unique and endearing flaws. The setting--a Middle Eastern city referred to only as "The City" is very believable. I don't know much about the Middle East but if you told me this was set in a real city there, I would totally buy it. Yet at the same time, there are fantastical elements lurking beneath the surface that are unexpected, charming, and weird. Bring this one to the beach with you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Full of action,fantasy,romance,and insights into a foreign culture. Takes a while to really get into, but a great book.definitely one to reread
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully blends Arabian mythology with computer technology while delivering a great adventure novel. The author is well versed on Islamic culture and give us an insider view.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Despite the marketing (references to Harry Potter, etc.,) on the book jacket, this is NOT a book for young readers. Explicit language and scenes throughout the book. Story was okay.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont see any instructions
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry but I cant chat anymore.i dont know why.chapter ten of my bok is out at spray result 8 or 9(the books got mixed up)if you get a roblox account my user name is can search me under people.but make your user name something like sageleaf568 or something like webkinz user name is tm123456 but i rarely go on.bye!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a rip off. U pay for 350 pages but there is one paragraph of writing on every page and as a whole it does not tell a story. U don't encounter the demon and u never see him hak anything. Bad writing bad purchase.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where are the instructions?