Alif the Unseen
Hackers, heretics, and spies, oh my
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., June 15, 2012
Maps to the Middle East
Alif the Unseenby G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 320 pp., $25
If somebody's going to write 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, how appropriate that it's G. Willow Wilson. As her previous (nonfiction) book The Butterfly Mosque relates, the author left her all-American, Denver-based upbringing to study the Middle East at Boston University, then converted to Islam, and moved to Cairo. Also, she's previously written the Air series of comic books and enjoys playing World of Warcraft. So that's a double check mark vis-à-vis Islamic geek cred.
What Wilson's first novel has going for it is the exoticism of Arabian fantasy, a less-trodden path than the European versions of all things Faery. Ditto the religion and modern culture of Islam. And Wilson's pitted her young protagonist Alif, a nonpartisan hacktivist, against a government computer-security thug who happens to 1) have legally absconded with Alif's fiancee, and 2) be in cahoots with dark forces from the land of the Djinn.
There's an Antique Object To Be Found And Fought For, of course, a book that's putatively the One Thousand and One Nights but from the POV of the Djinn. This text is big juju and somehow (it's quasi-explained with references to the omnidirectional cypherability of the Quran) able to impart Ultimate Coding Power to whoever figures it out.
The characters are, albeit ethnically detailed, mostly convenient to the plot, and their reactions tend to feel not as believable as the more interesting parts of this thrill ride: for example, the faith-exploring bits of conversation between Alif, the fiercely religious Dina, and the Western-convert-to-Islam (perhaps her name is Mary al-Sue?) who gets roped into the mission. In fact, never mind Alif; the supporting character Dina is the most engaging person, the most rewarding thing about this story.
But here's a book for summer reading, 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, alright; the only thing we really have a problem with is one impossible car chase up and down a giant sand dune. (Out June 19.)