Book Review: Alif the Unseen

The novel Alif the Unseen will be released in a couple of weeks and instead of me trying fruitlessly to summarize a book like this, let me just tell you what you need to know and why you should go out of your way to pick it up:

The book contains elements of geekery and religion, which to me, is awesome.

There are computers and hacking. There is an ancient book called the Alf Yeom– A Thousand and One Days – that shouldn’t really exist. There are jinn, which always makes things interesting. And, to complete the picture, there is a love story, a villain with an ominous name, and Alif, an Arab-Indian computer hacker in the middle of a grand clusterf-um, mess trying to make sense of what it is he needs to do when entrusted with the Alf Yeom – a sort of inverse of A Thousand and One Nights which instead depicts stories narrated by jinn, all set in an unnamed Arab emirate poised for revolution.

And there you have Alif the Unseen – A cool story by writer G. Willow Wilson that manages to include facets from different genres without alienating any one audience.

Fans of science-fiction and speculative fiction have always been used to elements of spirituality and fantastical elements in their medium so it’s a natural extension to see Islamic aspects show up. These are treated with respect without coming off as preachy or containing any subtle “Joinnn Usss” messages underlying them.

Fans of religion should definitely be interested in this one too. How can you not be? Jinn are involved!* For the folks out there who are not familiar with this concept, we here in the West know this better as “genie”. Think Aladdin. No, not kidding.

Jinn, created from ‘smokeless fire’, figure heavily into Alif the Unseen, much like they do in Wilson’s graphic novel Cairo, although we get to see more into their world in Alif. Although I’m a fast reader, I slowed down when reading the parts about the world that Wilson had created for the jinn, called the Empty Quarter in the book and in the ancient city of Irem. I found it all quite fascinating and for me, it conjured up images from the movie Spirited Away (which is a compliment as I loved that movie). Fun fact: For anyone out there who plays video games, Uncharted 3, the critically acclaimed and best-selling video game that came out late last year on Playstation 3, featured Irem as part of a plot point.

This is Wilson’s first novel, although she has written comic books and a memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, all well received. She actually ended up delivering the manuscript before the official start of the Arab Spring, which makes her writing somewhat prescient. No, I don’t mean that she predicted the use of a mythical book in overthrowing Middle Eastern governments, but just the idea that there are places that are ripe for revolution and how the internet and technology can play a part in it all. I’m not one to to read Introductions/Forwards/Preambles, what have you, but in the case of Alif the Unseen, definitely read what the author has to say in the beginning of the book about this topic and what drove her to write this book in the first place.

You almost wonder why a book like Alif the Unseen hasn’t been written before, but it makes perfect sense that G. Willow Wilson is the one to write it. Check it out.

Alif the Unseen is published by Grove Press and is meant to be out in July but it looks like you can already start ordering off of Amazon.

*Once ages ago when I was taking a class at the mosque, the sheikh, before letting the class go on a break, said to be sure to come back on time afterwards because he would be discussing one of two topics that always enthralls students – jinn.

8 thoughts

  1. I will put it on my short list of things to check out. Along with the 1,001 other books I need to read. Thank you for sharing this book with us. Are there a lot of American authors who have converted to Islam publishing mainstream works? Is this a growing genre?

    1. I’m sure there are people always writing about their religious experiences, like in the I Speak for Myself series (like that book on 45 Muslim American men) or in Love, InshAllah. She did write about her path to Islam in The Butterfly Mosque (*highly* recommended) but I think the author is a writer who happens to be Muslim. I’m sure there are authors out there whose religious background we aren’t aware of (nor need to be) but I don’t think this kind of stuff is tracked unless a work is obviously “Muslim-y”, if that makes sense.

  2. Great review, Bushra. After having read 50% of the novel thus far, I can attest that you’ve really encapsulted the tone of the book in your description.

    For those of you who haven’t read the book, “Joinnn Usss”….

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