TITLE: Alif the Unseen
AUTHOR: G. Willow Wilson
BLURB: In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line.
Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson would appear to have it all – well drawn characters, a good plot and enough pace to make you turn the pages, but even though I really enjoyed reading it there wasn’t any moment throughout the book that made me think “ah!”. Set in a fictitious ‘city’ in Arabia ruled by a corrupt Emir and his regime, with a plot played out against a backdrop of the Arab Spring, linked to the rich tapestry of middle eastern mythology and focusing on a main character steeped in the world of technology has to be a formula for success and the author handles all of these aspects with finesse. However, it’s probably the fact that the novel should appeal to a fairly wide audience from young adults to not-so-young adults like myself that is the only let down. I couldn’t help feeling the techy dilemma set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring would have provided a really good thriller for a slightly more mature audience (and I don’t mean mature in an age sense because that format wouldn’t have appealed to me). Alternatively, the fantasy version, linked to the 1001 Arabian Nights, and focusing on the young protagonist and his love interests (not a typo – there are of course two females to contend with) would have allowed for a much more imaginative novel for the young adult reader.
A couple of chapters into this novel I began to ‘cast’ the movie because a movie it would very easily make. The only thing that might scupper that possibility is the thorny issue of Islam that permeates the novel and if the very informative insights into the modern young person’s take on compliance with Muslim traditions was lost by ‘Americanising’ the movie then I think the charm and uniqueness of the book would be lost. The producers would without a doubt be under fire and, like the TV series Homeland would inevitably be incorrectly accused of being sympathetic to Muslim extremism. No doubt it will make an excellent series of novels though and I will be in line to buy the second instalment.
It’s worth a read because it’s well written and gives a very balanced glimpse of Islam and Muslim traditions.