Alif the Unseen

A tour-de-force of a debut that blends classic fantasy – the fascinating, frightening, sometimes-invisible world of the djinn – that’s genies to some of us – with the 21st-century reality of a super-hacker in mortal danger in a repressive security state on the Arabian Gulf.

Alif (that’s his handle) is a brilliant young superhacker working out of his mother’s small apartment, and his computer has just been breached. While Alif scrambles to protect his clients – dissidents and outlaws alike, whoever needs to hide their digital traces, he and his friends realize that they’ve been found by ‘the Hand’ – maybe a person, maybe a program, but definitely able to find anyone, and that could lead to prison, or worse. Alif, with the help of his childhood friend Dina, an ancient book sent to him in secret by his lost love (who may be frighteningly connected to the Hand) and a terrifying protector who almost looks human, must go underground – or rather, find a way into the hidden world of the djinn. They wrote the mysterious book centuries ago, and have knowledge that might just allow Alif to infiltrate the most sophisticated information technology the world has ever seen, and perhaps save himself, his loved ones, and freedom itself. With shades of Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, William Gibson, and the timeless Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour-de-force debut with major potential – a masterful, addictive blend of the ancient and the more-than-modern, smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

Reviews

Finalist for the Hammett Prize 2012

“Fast-paced, imaginative… . Wilson seems to delight in establishing, then confounding, any expectations readers may have… . [Her] tone alternates between serious and playful [but] for all its playfulness, “Alif the Unseen” is also at times unexpectedly moving, especially as it detours into questions of faith… . For those who view American fiction as provincial, or dominated by competent but safe work, Wilson’s novel offers a resounding, heterodox alternative.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Timely literary alchemy, a smart, spirited swirl of current events, and history; religion and mysticism; reality and myth; computer science and metaphysics… . Populated by memorable characters, both human and jinn… . “Alif the Unseen” richly rewards believers in the power of the written word.”
Seattle Times
 
“A sprightly political fairy tale.”
The Wall Street Journal

 “There is no question that Alif the Unseen is one of those rare events in the history of publishing, when an ancient pattern of storytelling (The Arabian Nights) is grafted on to an up-to-the-minute world crisis. This synthesis has great spiritual authority, thanks to the vision of G. Willow Wilson.”
Bookpage

“Intriguing, colorful… . Wilson provocatively juxtaposes ancient Arab lore and equally esoteric computer theory … “
PW
  
“[G. Willow Wilson] works magic… As an American convert to Islam, 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 New York Times (June 25, 2012)

Improbably charming … [Alif] stirs up a bookload of wizardry and glee. For all its spirited fun, this book incorporates the violence that spills off the Web and into Tahrir Square.”
— Janet Maslin, New York Times (May 27, 2012)

“Delightful… . Wilson’s geography is mapped out beautifully… . [Her] lucid writing includes minute and lyrical details in every scene and moment … . This book is both timely and prescient.”
rabble.ca

 “Brilliant… . Alif the Unseen is consistently sympathetic to those caught between two (or more) worlds… . A timely reminder that belief can be flexible and many-faceted from a first novel that is witty, imaginative and unorthodox in all senses.”
The Observer (UK)

“An exhilarating techno-thriller, [and] also far more than that. Wilson … has created in this rich, literate novel a profound dialogue between tradition and modernity, belief and non-belief, fairy tale and urban reality.”
The Guardian (UK)

“Charming and original.”
The Telegraph (UK)

 “A breezy yet thought-provoking blend of techno-thriller and urban fantasy… . The prose of Alif the Unseen is smart and agile; romance and adventure flow easily between Deep Thoughts… … . . 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.”
—i09 (online)

“As timely and thoughtful as it is edgy and exciting, this dervish of a novel wraps modern tendrils around ancient roots.”
—Booklist (starred review)
 
“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.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“The scripter of the graphic novel Cairo (2007) and writer of the memoir The Butterfly Mosque (2010) here offers her first prose novel, ushering the energy of the Arab Spring into urban fantasy while unleashing jinns into the digital age… . Wilson has a lot on her mind with this ambitious and layered novel, which swirls about ideas of theology, technology, activism, class conflict, and cultural inquiry without getting bogged down in any of them. As timely and thoughtful as it is edgy and exciting, this dervish of a novel wraps modern tendrils around ancient roots, spanning the gulf between ones and zeros, haves and have-nots, and seen and unseen worlds.”
BOOKLIST, starred review

“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.”
LIBRARY JOURNAL, starred review

“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
 
“Driven by a hot ionic charge between higher math and Arabian myth, G. Willow Wilson conjures up a tale of literary enchantment, political change, and religious mystery.”
—Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Out of Oz
 
 “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
 
“A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.”
—Steven Hall, author of The Raw Shark Texts
 
“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
 
“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
 
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