Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

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Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: This is really a genre-crossing phenomenon: a political/IT thriller (no understanding of IT required) that allows magic and fantasy to seep in until we're in a totally different world. Oh, and Neil Gaiman's a fan so that says it all.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857895660

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Alif lives under an alias and he has a good reason for that: he's a hakinista in an Arabian oil producing country that, to put it mildly, doesn't encourage free speech. He sells IT know-how and wizardy to any covert organisation that works against the government, their agenda unimportant as long as the aim is the downfall of their oppression. But all that's about to change as Alif falls in love and, as it's the wrong girl at the wrong time, is spurned. His response to this romantic let down is to create a computer programme that will identify her internet activity by her individual typing pattern. Unfortunately what works for him also works against him. It's captured by the notoriously dangerous government censor 'The Hand' who also wants Alif and his hidden network of colleagues. Now Alif runs to preserve his life and those who have trusted him, his only possession an ancient manuscript from his former love. Just a book, albeit one that's accompanied by myths and old wives' tales rendering it irrelevant a logical world. However, sometimes the most desperate of times requires more than logic and, sometimes, a mere book of stories may be more than it seems.

G Willow Wilson, American award winning author of the autobiographical The Butterfly Mosque, spends a lot of her time in Egypt, and it shows (in a very good way). Now, with her second book, she's offering us fiction different not only from that memoir, but unique in the way that dances across genres jumping from thriller to fantasy and back again. Indeed, Alif the Unseen isn't going to let you go till it's finished with you and I don't think you'll complain in the slightest.

Alif was written around the time of the Arab Spring of 2011, a moment in history when their populations tried to reclaim African and Middle Eastern states from less than benevolent dictatorships. It was a dangerous long struggle that some are still fighting, refusing to remain passive. This feeling of optimistic uncertainty has been captured in this novel and brought down to a personal level.

Alif, as a hacker/programmer knows the drill: covert trysts with revolutionaries, the thrill of almost being discovered and then vanishing into the shadows. He's in control. Then suddenly the tide turns and he becomes prey for a government agent deemed by many to be inhuman. We feel the hairs rise on our necks as all the elements of an excellent thriller kick-in. We're treated to twists, red herrings, the paranoia of not knowing who to trust accompanied by moments of peril and mortal danger but there's also an alluring subtlety of wisdom and culture in the mix.

Alif doesn't travel alone; he has a companion list for which other fantasy writers would die. From Dinar the devout girl next door who falls into this unwanted adventure to the wonderfully dry-humoured temple Imam, Sheikh Bilal, also the anonymous American 'Convert' and (my personal favourite) the sarcastic, witty Vikram the Vampire, all have a function, a personality and enough substance for spin-off novels of their own. (As, actually, does Alif's manuscript itself.)

When you start reading you wonder where (and when) the fantasy is going to appear, but be patient and enjoy the journey. The hints of another dimension are tantalisingly scattered until… I'm not going to reveal that moment but it feels like walking through an enthralling cavern and then, all of a sudden, we emerge somewhere we didn't think we'd end up, but we're really happy to be there. Once you arrive you'll realise why SF/fantasy legend Neil Gaiman is so gushing in his 'blurb' praise.

Alif is definitely the sort of book that shouldn't be pinned down by generic expectations. In fact, it's for anyone who enjoys perching on the edge of their seat in unbridled anticipation so maybe give it a go.

A special thank you to Corvus for sending us a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this then perhaps you'd like to try G Willow Wilson's autobiographical debut. If you prefer fiction then we recommend The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, her literary advocate.

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Buy Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson at


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