Alif the Unseen

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Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson, book reviewAlif the Unseen is the debut novel by G. Willow Wilson. Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, known only as the City, Alif is a computer geek, a hacker working for clients who need a way around the censorship of the State. He falls in love with the beautiful Intisar, and has his heart broken. His subsequent attempt to remove himself from her life, and her sending him a copy of The Thousand and One Nights, puts in motion events which Alif finds himself unable to stop, where the modern world of the City comes face-to-face with the magical and terrifying world of the djinn.

Alif the Unseen appealed to me on the basis of what sounded like an exciting story, a mix of modern and ancient, with a good dose of the supernatural. The story is exciting and full of action, but I wasn’t quite right in my other expectations. I will admit from the outset that I know little about Islam and the Quran, and I don’t think I had ever heard the term djinn before reading Alif the Unseen. I’m not sure whether these people or creatures can be called supernatural; their roots seem to be more embedded in religion that is usual for what you would refer to as supernatural. Even now I can’t quite say what the djinn are; they are a magical and terrifying race which takes many different forms and each has different power.

For a novel which seems to have strong affiliations to the Islam religion and its history, I found Alif the Unseen generally easy to follow. The djinn were perhaps the most complicated part of that side of the story, and although I did not entirely understand what they were, the djinn characters slotted easily into the fabric of the story. The sections of the story where I did get somewhat lost were much more specific to the novel, rather than being aspects of the religion; I found passages relating to Alif’s computer work in connection to The Thousand and One Days baffling at times. Alif would explain his ideas to other characters, who would then understand them; but it was like Wilson did not want her readers to understand, as the explanations offered by Alif gave me little idea of what he was up to.

Despite this, the story of Alif the Unseen is generally well-paced and exciting. Alif stumbles from one bad situation to another, usually worse, and every time you are anxious to find out if or how he will extricate himself and his friends. Alif is a fairly likeable character, exasperating for his poor decisions and blindness to those around him, but he usually comes good and learns from his mistakes.

Wilson’s writing style is hard to describe. It isn’t particularly memorable; she writes well but not so well that the writing takes precedence over the story. Her style does seem somehow appropriate to this novel set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city controlled by the State – I found I got a good sense of place from her style; her characters all behave in a way appropriate to them and the location.

I enjoyed Alif the Unseen and would like to read more by G. Willow Wilson, but I wouldn’t rave about it as others have. It is worth a read, for a good story and well-written setting, but it is not a novel which will appeal to everyone.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Published by Atlantic Books, September 2012
Many thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a review copy.

Buy book online
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Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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