Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is a delicious mix of modern and ancient, secular and mystic. It is an adventure tale of a young half Arab man living a somewhat desultory life in an un-named emirate in the middle east. He makes his living as one of the Grey Hats, the invisible hackers who leach some measure of freedom from the stifling laws of his world for their friends and clients. This means he lives in constant peril of discovery, torture, and imprisonment.
To complicate the situation, he loves a girl, which, as we all know, is a risky business, and this love proves to be the catalyst that propels him into danger, out of the isolated bedroom where he does his coding, and through the streets of his city, which are populated by veiled women, haughty turbaned royals, and a cast of mysterious creatures who are not quite human.
Wilson proves a worthy successor to Scheherazade with a story that pays homage to the Arab Spring and the Arabian Nights, and also paints a loving portrait of an Islam that is founded not on the more familiar themes of jihad and oppression, but on Godliness and learning.
I read Alif the Unseen as part of what is turning out to be a bit of a meditation on Middle Eastern culture. I also read, and highly recommend the forthcoming The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and the mystery series set in Saudi Arabia by Zoe Ferraris, including Finding Nouf and City of Veils. These first three built my understanding of that part of the world, and helped me understand the complexity of Alif the Unseen better.
review by Annie Leonard