Alif the Unseen (book, Willow G. Wilson, 2012)


From SFX #225.

FOUR STARS

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publisher: Corvus Books

Drunk on jinn

Inspired by the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen concerns Alif, a hacker jilted by his posh girlfriend and caught up in a struggle for the Thousand and One Days, a book ripe with forbidden knowledge that could spell revolution. It is, of course, a magical book, dictated by genies, and so Alif, a master of unseen cyberspace, is thrust into another unseen world, one inhabited by the creatures of Arabian myth.

Wilson is an American convert to Islam who has lived in Egypt for many years, and her experiences inform much of the book, although it would be interesting to see what a Muslim born and bred to the Middle East would make of it. Wilson herself seems to be a person caught between two worlds, berating both West and East for their foibles and failings in the book’s forays into philosophy. There are times when she appears to be criticising her adopted civilisation for not understanding its own culture properly. Is this a valid point, or a glimmer of Western condescension?

Either way, Alif the Unseen deserves extra points simply for being different to the usual urban fantasy fare. It’s at its best when detailing the cramped streets of its unnamed city, or depicting the jinn and their ambivalent relationship with mankind, at its weakest when blending mythology and computer science. It’s fascinating, but ever so slightly hollow, as the magic she strives so hard to capture remains somewhat elusive.

 

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