Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Urban fantasy – Standalone
“I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and it’s only a book when anybody challenges them… You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you’d be horrified if I suggested burning the Satanic Verses—because you have reactions, not convictions.”
A young hacker, going by the nickname Alif, finds himself the target of an authoritarian government when he creates a highly desirable and dangerous computer program, able to identify people via keystroke patterns. The political and the technological collide with the spiritual and fantastical when Alif is given an ancient book of tales (the Alf Yeom) told by the jinn, creatures out of Arabian mythology who turn out to be not so mythological. It transpires that the Alf Yeom contains a key of some kind, and it is up to Alif and his allies to try and keep both the Alf Yeom and his program out of the wrong hands.
G. Willow Wilson is best known right now for being the writer behind the new and very popular comic series featuring Kamala Khan, a young American Muslim woman, taking up the mantle of superhero Ms. Marvel. I am not much of a comics reader, but having heard such good stuff about Wilson, I still very much wanted to read her writing. Picking up her debut novel seemed the perfect way to do this, and for some extra motivation it was also the book of the month for March at the Mary Sue Regulars Book Club.
Alif begins as realistic and somewhat unlikable young man. He is providing his hacking services indiscriminately for anyone in the name of freedom of information, and scarcely spares a thought for any potential ramifications – which is what lands him, partially, in his particular predicament. He is often narrow-minded, sexist, and entitled, especially in his treatment of his pious childhood friend Dina. He is condescending towards Dina’s strong religious convictions and frequently acts childishly and unreasonably around her. But I’d encourage readers who are similarly disenchanted with Alif near the beginning to keep going: over the course of the book, Alif matures and gains perspective in a very genuine and relatable way, and I ended up enjoying his character arc a great deal.
The setting is generically Middle Eastern; no nation is ever mentioned, and the city’s features (the old city, the mosques, the university) are always left unnamed. It is set post-Arab Spring, with heightened conflicts of the Middle East playing out in the novel; modern and ancient, spiritual and secular, the state and the revolutionaries. The plot defies easy genre classification: I might call it an urban fantasy cyberthriller with a young adult feel.
What sets this book apart from others, other than the unique mix of genres, is its treatment of faith and religion. It is rare, perhaps especially in Sci-fi/Fantasy, to read a book in which characters interact with and explore their faith in a diversity of ways, and this book does exactly that. We have devout and conservative Dina, and whom I was prepared to dislike immediately when she proselytizes on the evils of The Golden Compass when you first meet her. But then, unexpectedly and very quickly, she became my favourite character. While Alif is the more liberal, skeptical character, he is also the one who is constantly judging those around him for their differing views, where Dina is more respectful and thoughtful. She’s not afraid to put Alif in his place when it’s necessary, as she is doing in the quote I placed at the beginning of this review, and having her solid core of convictions makes her a stronger, braver person. Dina’s faith is unshakeable; in her religion, in herself, and in Alif and his potential to become a better person.
Dina is also woman who chooses to where the niqab, and she provides a counterpoint of the oft-heard rhetoric about the niqab being a symbol of the oppression of women. Alif the Unseen paints Dina’s decision to where the niqab as subversive; as a lower class woman, her decision is an anti-classist statement of her belief in her own value, and causes her to be accused of putting on airs. It also frees her from having her value tied to her physical beauty, as it so often is with women. For Dina, wearing the niqab is a way of expressing her confidence in herself, and in her inherent value as a woman and a person of faith. So, Stephen Harper should probably read this book.
We also have the Convert, unnamed throughout the narrative, whose life story is similar to Wilson’s (an American convert to Islam who moved to the Middle East). If she is a self-insert, though, she is done in a fairly tongue-in-cheek way. When our heroes encounter fantastical or magical elements in the story, the Convert isn’t able to see or comprehend them. In this way, her status as an outsider and a Westerner—and therefore not seeing the full picture—is humourously and pointedly emphasized. I was not always pleased with the Convert’s treatment, however: she was victim to one of my least favourite female-specific character tropes (gur zlfgvpny certanapl gebcr <– visit rot13.com to translate the spoiler!), and overall I was less happy with her character arc than others.
Alif the Unseen is an original and fun fantasy page-turner that serves an introduction to religion, spirituality, and the youth culture in the wake of the Arab Spring. I can’t speak to how accurately or (possibly) problematically this is done, and I think other people would have more valid and interesting things to say on this front. My impression is, though, that Alif the Unseen succeeds in at least one important area: not depicting Arabs/Muslims/Middle Eastern people as a monolithic group. This seems like a foolishly obvious statement, but I think it gets obscured when all you see from a certain area is news footage of terrorists, every single day. People have unique backgrounds and life experiences and they all think different things about socioeconomics and politics and technology and religion, especially in an area that is so rich with history and the birthplace of the world’s three major monotheistic religions. It seems to me that Wilson honours that diversity.
If you like _____ you should pick up Alif the Unseen:
- modern, non-Western fantasy settings
- genre-defying novels
- fast paced stories with time out for politics, religion, or philosophy discussion
You might want to pass on Alif the Unseen if:
- you’re not into young adult contemporary fiction
- perhaps if you are a computer whiz (I know enough to find Alif’s hacking strategies questionable, but not so much that it bothered me unduly, so I was fine!)