I’m a couple months behind, I know, but I finally got around to reading Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and I loved it. I’m a big fan of Wilson generally, but I was a little bit nervous because novels are a tricky game. I really enjoyed Cairo (one of the best graphic novels Vertigo’s published in the last few years) and Mystic, and her memoir The Butterfly Mosque was fascinating, but the jump from comics or non-fiction to novels can be hard. But it was great!!
Alif the Unseen is about a computer hacker who goes by the handle Alif. He lives in an unspecified, oppressive Middle Eastern country, and is in love with an upper class girl that he’ll never get to be with. When the man the girl is forced to marry turns out to be the head of the state’s internet security forces, things just go from bad to worse for Alif. But then some djinns show up and the book gets awesome and bizarre.
What I liked best about the book was the seamless blend of the real world and the book’s many mystical elements. Alif the Unseen is very much about life in a modern Middle Eastern state, from the omnipresence of Islam and Islamic law to how technology can be a safe haven in these states to gender relations to secret prisons to the Arab Spring and the current wave of revolutions. That’s all there, and well-presented. Apart from a short, mystical prelude, the book starts out very mundane (not in a boring way, in a Fables-like, non-mystical, “mundy” way) and is just about a broken-hearted computer hacker for a while, and through that we learn a lot about the modern Middle East.
Then the djinns show up!! And not just djinns… there are demons and secret books and entire cities hidden to human eyes. It’s a magical world with its own logic and rules, and Wilson intertwines this with the real world beautifully.
Plus, the djinns are super cool. I feel like I have a decent grasp on the basics of Islam (the Five Pillars and all of that), but I don’t know much at all about the intricacies of its wider mythology. Actually, all I know about it might be what I learned reading Cairo!! So it’s fun to learn about a whole new branch of mythology that has roots in the Quran but also has grown through other legends and stories. Islamic folklore is a big mythological blindspot for me, and I enjoyed being introduced to it.
I also really liked that not only is the strongest and bravest character in the book a woman, but Dina’s a woman who’s chosen to wear the niqab, the black veil. Lately debates have raged about veiling and whether or not it should be outlawed, and most of these conversations seemed to ignore the issue of choice for a woman herself. The decision to veil or not became her father or husband forcing her to wear it OR the state forcing her not to. Now, of course many women are forced to wear a veil who don’t want to, but there are also women who DO want to. Dina chooses to wear the niqab even against the wishes of her family because it means something to her, and she’s no weak-willed wallflower. Being devout to Islamic law and being a strong woman aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and Dina was a great character who walked that line.
SIDENOTE: Veiling is a super complex issue, even if you agree that it should be a matter of choice for the woman. For example, sure a woman might choose to wear a veil, but is the religion and culture that encourages veiling so inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women that choosing to wear the veil is actually just participating in your own subjugation? And even if it is, I suppose you should have the freedom to so subjugate yourself, right? I don’t have any answers… I just very much appreciated how Wilson addressed the issue in the novel and made it Dina’s choice.
Along with all of the mythological fun and interesting characters, Alif the Unseen is an all around great read. It’s very exciting, with lots of twists and turns. Alif and Dina are on the lam for most of the book, running from both the state and demonic forces with the help of their kick ass djinn pals. Plus the hacking is quite cool!! I thought it might be tricky to make sitting at a desk writing code seem exciting, but it’s actually super interesting both in terms of the technology itself and then later how the technology meshes with the Alf Yeom, the secret book of the djinns. It’s all very fun, though sporadically dark and freaky, which I also enjoyed.
All in all, I thought it was a fantastic novel and I highly recommend it, along with pretty much everything else G. Willow Wilson has written. You can pick up Alif the Unseen at any decent bookstore… I live in Halifax, which isn’t so great with getting in new and different books sometimes, and all of our major stores have it, so yours probably do too. Go check it out!!