Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Alif is an Arab-Indian hacker-for-hire in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate with a digital policing system so effective it’s referred to as the Hand of God. In an already rightfully paranoid community, Alif’s chosen occupation is fraught. But it is his clandestine affair with the aristocratic Intisar that truly precipitates his downfall.
When Intisar’s parents organise her betrothal to a prince, she is forced to end her relationship with Alif. Her last communication with him is strange: she sends him an original edition of the Alf Yeom, an ancient book of unusual provenance that is allegedly a subversive take on the classic The Thousand and One Nights and purportedly dictated by a jinn.
When Alif’s computer is breached by state security, he goes into hiding with his loyal best friend, Dina. Investigations soon reveal that Intisar’s new fiancé is none other than the head of state security, the Hand of God himself, and he wants the Alf Yeom at any cost. Desperation drives Alif deeper into the Empty Quarter, the occult underbelly of the City, and closer to the unbelievable truth about the book.
Alif the Unseen is billed as G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel, but she is a writer of experience, having penned an acclaimed memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, and several graphic novels. As a convert to Islam and a part-time resident of Cairo, Wilson is uniquely positioned to tell this story that riffs on Middle Eastern politics and Arab society – attitudes about class and race, relations with the West, and the simmering tension of the Arab Spring.
If this all sounds like a big, hot mess, then let me reassure you: Alif the Unseen works on every level. It’s a supernatural action story tinged with yearning and romance; a satire with sharp, political teeth; and a homage to the power of myth, words, names and computer codes.
Leanne Hall is a children’s bookseller at Readings Carlton, and a writer of young adult fiction. Her novel This Is Shyness won the Text Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Writing, and her latest, The Queen of the Night, was released in 2012. She blogs at the longblinks.com and you can follow her on twitter - @lilymandarin.