3 September 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

"Alif the Unseen"
G Willow Wilson
ISBN 978 0 85789 566 0
Corvus, London

This is a magnificent debut novel by G Willow Wilson.  It is, though, difficult to pigeonhole.  It is a fairy story, but also a story of revolution, a cyberthriller, and a love story.

The Alif of the title (not his real name) is a hacker living in a nameless but authoritarian city state on the Arabian Gulf.  Alif hires his skills to anyone who will pay, but especially to political and religious rebels across the Middle East.  However, he and his comrades are steadily being hunted down by the Hand,  the almost godlike tool of State security.  And Alif’s love life is in turmoil as his girlfriend is destined to marry someone else.

Though a little slow to take off, the story really gets going when Alif acquires an ancient book, the Alf Yeom or Thousand and One Days.  Everyone seems to want this book, including the Hand, who wants to use it to devise new coding methods to trap the rebels.  But fairytale books are perilous and the danger of reading them is that you write yourself into the story.

In rollercoaster action Alif goes on the run and becomes involved with the djinn, mercurial and magical fairylike beings who are, like him, “unseen” by the mundane world.  Can he tell what is real and trustworthy from what is demonic and deceitful? 

This is an exciting story which brings to life a magical setting very different from the more typical European-flavoured background of much fantasy, weaving in a topical background of the Arab Spring and creating some wonderful incongruities, including an efreet (a sort of spirit) which employs Alif to fix its anti-virus, a pious vampire and an American convert whose bad Arabic is rendered as somewhat “‘Allo, ‘allo” style English.

It’s something rather different, very fresh and immense fun.

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.