Magic Verses Technology – Alif The Unseen

I just finished reading Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (writer of several comics, including Air and Cairo).  Wilson is an American born Muslim and her experience greatly informs her latest novel.

The book itself has blurbs from Neil Gaiman, Matt Ruff, and Steven Hall… so I knew that between those quotes and the fantastic cover art… I had no choice but to read this book.  And I’m glad I did!

A Note: Wilson is also an accomplished essayist, journalist, and a wonderful blogger as well… Check out her work in whatever form you can, because everything I’ve seen has been stellar!

Alif The Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
433 Pages
Grove Press
June 19, 2012 

It is a bit difficult to classify Alif The Unseen as far as genre goes.  It is a bit of a realistic novel, at times a techno-thriller, at other times there’s some magic realism (that will occasionally lead to full-on fantasy), and there’s a strong love story at its core.

The novel’s plotting is smooth, though it does start a little slow.  However, as good as Wilson’s plotting is, the strongest aspects of her novel are the ways her prose magnifies the sensory details the characters are going through.

We see the stark colors of The City (the otherwise unnamed setting of about 90% of the novel), feel the heat and grit of the desert, and smell the cooked food of the marketplace and the garbage that litters the poorer areas.

Even the emotions of the characters bleed off the pages in realistic, and sometimes chilling, ways.  We feel Alif’s fear as he’s chased by members of The State, our heart breaks as he is separated from the one he loves, and we’re treated to the elation he feels when things are (finally!) going well for him.

Some of the most descriptive writing comes when Alif and his friends visit the world of the djinn.  At various points, the group must take refuge in the parallel reality of the genies and the descriptions of the architecture (as well as the djinns, ifrits, and various other mystical creatures that inhabit that particular plane of existence) are some of the finest in the novel.

Alif isn’t your typical techno-thriller protagonist either.  He’s a slightly chubby computer nerd who spends more time on his computer than he does out in the bright lights of his desert home.  He is also prone to apologizing (and he often will not stop apologizing) and has regular overly emotional outbursts (mostly crying).  But even so…

He has a brilliant mind and Wilson has deftly written Alif to be immensely likable even with his numerous shortcomings (not to mention his various moments of density that border on idiocy, especially in his relationships with other characters).

Equally impressive in Wilson’s writing is how her religion informs her prose, but never in a heavy-handed, or tedious way.  There is much discussion of religion (Alif himself is rather dismissive of the religious, including his best friend Dina) and it is consistently interesting and informative.

Of particular note is the discussion between Alif, a djinn named Vikram, and an American woman who has converted to Islam (only referred to as “The Convert”) discuss how a word from the Quran translates to “atom” in English, even though there were no such thing as atoms in the 6th century.  The discussion, a scant two pages of the novel, provides Wilson with the space to describe the beauty and miraculous ways of the text of the Quran in a way that I’ve not before read.

The last thirty to forty pages of the novel is meant to invoke memories of the Arab Spring that took place in early 2011.  Thoughts of revolution simmer in the background of the early parts of the novel, but when the revolt happens in earnest… it isn’t described in a biased way.

Wilson writes the people who are revolting as good people… bad people… all kinds of people, really.  And she does it without the sort of saccharine writing that a lesser writer would use.  Wilson is obviously invested in the ideas behind the Arab Spring, but it doesn’t color her writing in any way.

And the ending?  Well, I won’t spoil it, but it is satisfying, and we’re left to ponder the fate of the characters while we’re treated to Alif’s real name (though it was hinted at several times before in the text).

If you’ve enjoyed any sort of magical realism novel before this (think Salman Rushdie, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) you’ll definitely find a lot to enjoy here.  Similarly, if you love Arabian Nights, literary techno-thrillers, or a good love story… you’ll also enjoy Alif The Unseen.

So get to your local bookstore and grab a copy to enjoy!  I did and I think the novel has the quality to be this year’s Night Circus (and if you tell me you didn’t read The Night Circus I just might cry… and then I would attempt to get you to buy the paperback that’s coming out in a couple of weeks).

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