Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All Things, Seen and Unseen

Alif the Unseen, the first novel by acclaimed comic book writer G. Willow Wilson (Cairo, Air) is a techno-fantasy with its roots deep in mythology. It’s a book that has computer code and jinn, revolution and thwarted love, and a mysterious and powerful manuscript. It is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

[Mild spoilers after the jump]

Alif is an Arab-Indian hacker, and a good one, in an unnamed Middle Eastern state. Alif is not his given name, but his handle. It is also the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. A self-described grey hat, he uses his skills to shield his clients from surveillance. He’s also a young man who fell in love with a girl who has just been engaged to “The Hand of God” – the head of state security.

Complicating things is his former lover’s parting gift – a mysterious manuscript, the Alf Yeom, in English, The Thousand and One Days. The Hand of God wants Alif, and he wants the Alf Yeom.

Alif is forced to go into hiding, together with his neighbor, Dina, who is one of the best women I’ve met in fiction. She is complex and real, intelligent, and has a core of strength that is very impressive. They hide not just in the streets of their own city, but in the places between, with the jinn Vikram the Vampire as their unlikely guide.

Wilson skillfully blends the modern world with the mythological one, until it becomes clear that they are not two separate places, but rather pieces of a whole, some seen, and some unseen, and lets us see the way each influences the other.

Thus, it becomes no surprise when a computer code acts as if it has magic, or that a magic book can become a kind of computer code. And I mean that “no surprise” genuinely – for all that Alif the Unseen is rich and complex, Wilson gives it such a well-built foundation that the turns and changes of the plot make absolute sense in the world that she has created. I also appreciate that it is an entire world that she has created – politics and religion are there, and they matter, but their presence is organic, not overwhelming.

Beyond the stakes of the plot, and the rich mythology, my favorite part of Alif the Unseen was the characters. Wilson has a gift for putting real people on the page, even when the characters are not, strictly speaking people. Vikram the Vampire is a delight – I could read an entire book of Adventures with Vikram – and, as previously mentioned, Dina is wonderful.

As is this book. If you want smart, rich fiction, with deep mythological relevance that engages with today’s world, Alif the Unseen is a book you should be reading.

By Kat Howard