I'm no stranger to fantasy novels, but Alif the Unseen is something different. As a Muslim, I've never actually come across a fantasy novel that touches on Islam, let alone incorporates it into the narrative. Author G. Willow Wilson herself admitted that part of her motivation behind the novel was how she always had to keep her three primary audiences separate - i.e. comic book geeks, literary types and Muslims. Her debut novel, though not her first forage into writing (she has written for graphic novels before) comfortably addresses all three groups mentioned above.
Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate only known as The City, the story revolves around a young man who calls himself Alif, a gray hat computer hacker who is unhappy with the way the State controls their freedom online. Alif's not too picky about his clientele, with Communists, Islamists and anything in between turning to him in order to express themselves online without the interference of the State.
The Internet is where his work and life is, and it is through this medium that he meets Intisar, a wealthy and intelligent girl from the upper-class side of The City. Their love affair is one for the shadows, meetings after dark and a self-proclaimed marriage in Alif's small duplex bedroom in the lower-class Baqara District.
The novel begins as Intisar ignores Alif's text messages and soon he discovers that she has been engaged to a wealthy Arab - Alif, being of mixed parentage is no match for him. Heartbroken, he retreats and creates a code that will prevent Intisar from ever being able to contact him ever again, and it is this software along with a mysterious ancient book called the Alf Yeom gifted to him by the girl that sets into motion a series of events that will change his life as well as the fate of The City.
This is a beautiful book, rich with culture and character. Many of the characters are either unnamed or going by pseudonyms, which I found fitting; Alif himself is hiding behind the first stroke of the Arabic alphabet. I grew to love the characters, and Alif is one of those protagonists who doesn't come off as heroic and brilliant but instead human in his decisions, rationales and fears. His closest friend Dina is a spunky, hidden gem of a girl and she outshines Alif sometimes with her strength and courage.
Wilson's main theme with this novel emphasises heavily on how the unseen can play a huge role in the grander scheme of things, like how Alif uses technology as his weapon and how the djinn assist in the revolution. However, there are other underlying nuggets of thought as well. Her characters struggle with faith, their place in their cultures as well as the situations with which they were brought up in. There was a strong spiritual element to a lot of their motivations - and yet the issue of religion is never a main point, which I found to be very fitting.
I really enjoyed this book, and while some of Wilson's attempts at painting the physical representation of Alif's coding prowess come out a little stretched, she has a way of making me feel what Alif is feeling. Parts where he was genuinely frightened out of his mind had me reading with my hair standing on end. I'm definitely thinking of re-reading this again.