38 pages • 1 hour readG. Willow Wilson
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Alif the Unseen is the debut novel of G. Willow Wilson, an American-born writer of comics and prose who lived in Egypt for a time and converted to Islam in 2003. Published in 2012, the book won the 2013 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2013 Locus Award for Best First Novel. Blending fantasy and cyberpunk themes, it follows a young man’s journey through the seen world of humans and the unseen world of the jinn while he protects an ancient book from a power-hungry prince. This guide follows the edition published by Grove Press on November 30, 2013.
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The story opens with Reza, a heretical scholar in ancient Persia who receives regular visits from a jinn, or spirit. Reza has compelled the creature to tell the stories of its people. Despite the jinn’s warnings that its stories were never meant for humans, Reza intends to put the stories into book form, read them, and gain mythical powers.
In the modern-day Persian Gulf, Alif is a hacker who goes by the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif protects anyone who can afford his data encryption service from various government crackdowns on information freedom. Within his own country, Alif and his fellow hackers face the Hand of God (the Hand), the state computer program responsible for destroying internet content deemed threatening or unsuitable.
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Alif is in a secret relationship with Intisar, a young woman from an aristocratic family. Due to his low status and mixed heritage, Alif is not a worthy mate for Intisar. When Intisar breaks up with Alif and tells him to disappear from her life. Alif takes this literally. He codes a program capable of identifying Intisar based on her computer use and blocks her ability to find him online. Alif can’t bring himself to block her from his view and keeps a link to her computer.
Shortly after the breakup, Alif’s computer is attacked by the Hand, and he receives a copy of a book called the Alf Yeom from Intisar. At first, these events seem unrelated, but Alif soon discovers the Hand is Intisar’s fiancé. Since Alif left his computer connected to Intisar’s, the Hand knows who Alif is and has a copy of the program that can identify people based on their computer use. Now a fugitive, Alif enlists the help of his friend Dina to figure out what the book has to do with Intisar and the Hand.
In need of protection, Alif and Dina seek out Vikram the Vampire, who they discover is a jinn. With the help of an American scholar known as “the convert” and a jinn friend of Vikram’s, they discover that they are holding the original version of the Alf Yeom. Alif tries to contact Intisar to ask why she gave him the book, but state agents discover him. Alif and his friends take refuge in a mosque overseen by Sheikh Bilal. Intisar leads the Hand to Alif, and the state attacks the mosque. After morning prayer with Sheikh Bilal, Alif realizes the Hand wants the Alf Yeom to build a quantum computer and seize power from State. Vikram takes Dina and the convert to jinn territory for protection. Alif and Sheikh Bilal are captured by State.
Alif undergoes psychological torture and starvation in a government prison for three months. The Hand visits frequently to discuss the Alf Yeom. Alif warns the Hand the book can’t be coded, but the Hand ignores him. One of Alif’s fellow hackers, a prince, breaks Alif and Sheikh Bilal out of prison. The three go to the jinn city of Irem, where they find Dina and the convert, who is pregnant with Vikram’s child. Vikram died getting the girls to safety.
The prince finds screenshots of scrambled websites from their city. Alif recognizes them as the Hand’s failure to code the Alf Yeom. Alif makes a deal with the jinn: He will fight the Hand if they battle the Hand’s demon allies. Alif leaves the Alf Yeom in Irem and returns home with Dina and the prince, where they find people rioting in the streets.
Alif, Dina, and the prince go to the prince’s apartment, where the Hand corners Alif, Dina, and the prince. Alif challenges the Hand to explain how he’ll build his quantum computer. The Hand reads through the Alf Yeom and finds the final story is now entitled “The Tale of Alif the Unseen.” The Hand orders his army of demons to kill Alif, but human protestors storm the apartment. Alif is knocked out a window and rescued by a jinn. Alif rushes back toward the apartment, where the Hand has been lynched. This marks the end of State’s reign. The story ends with Alif and Dina, who have finally professed their love for one another, walking home through the aftermath of rebellion.
By G. Willow Wilson