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Alif the Unseen: Pretty good novel

Alif jerked his backpack over one shoulder. “I just feel like this whole thing is getting out of control.”

“We’re living in a city run by an emir from one of the most inbred families on earth, where a few censors can throw someone in jail for writing things on the Internet and falling in love with the wrong person.” Dina reached out to be helped to her feet. “It went out of control a long time ago.”


Alif the Unseen
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012

Alif (not a name, but a letter of the alphabet) is a hacker in an unnamed city-state on the Persian Gulf. His mission is to provide computer security to anybody who needs it, anybody who might become a target of the security state: pornographers, dissidents, Islamists, no matter.

He’s good. But recently, the state has acquired such mysterious new powers to reach into the ‘Net that hackers call the phenomenon The Hand of God.

The upper-class young woman Alif has fallen in love with breaks off their relationship. Her father has betrothed her to another man — and adding horror to his grief, Alif realizes that her fiance is the head of state security — The Hand himself.

And Alif has something The Hand wants more than he wants the girl.

Soon Alif is on the run, unintentionally dragging his neighbor Dina with him. Their fate, the fate of the Arab world’s hacker community, the fate of The Hand, and indeed the fate of Alif’s country, all hang on a mysterious book.

The Alf Yeom, The Thousand and One Days contains the wisdom of the Djinn in the form of innocuous tales. Humans have coveted the book’s power for hundreds of years — but until now, not one has been able to unlock its secret code.


“Belief,” said the man. “It doesn’t mean the same thing it used to, not for you. You have unlearned the hidden half of the world.”

“But the world is crawling with religious fanatics. Surely belief is thriving.”

“Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. … Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can’t help you.”


Alif is a pretty good novel. It’ll keep you turning pages. It might keep you up late at night. And it’s so different than anything you’re likely to have read that you’ll probably remember it long after you’ve closed its covers.

Author G. Willow Wilson tells a fine adventure story with a strong undercurrent of freedom. She also drops us without comment or explanation into a culture that’s so foreign to most of us we might just have to accept, rather than try to understand, many of its premises.

This may also be the only novel you’ll ever read where a character dreams of a mythical stag and doe — then realizes they’re running across “a Linux platform.” (Not to worry, non-techies; the coding aspect of the book is more hinted at than shown.)

I liked Alif and Dina and virtually all the other major characters (including a thuggish but noble “genie,” a pampered princeling, and a courageous elderly cleric). I also liked that the local hacker headquarters is called — wait for it — Radio Sheikh.

There were only a couple of things I didn’t like — though it would be more accurate to say I regretted them.

First is that, while Alif could be an absolutely rip-roaring story for the Harry Potter crowd (and one that could help them develop a healthy disrespect for the state), Wilson has chosen to use some language that’s not likely to get many Parental Seals of Approval. Nothing in the plot is X-rated and only a few passages approach R, but you might not want your 12-year-old reading a few of the epithets. Really a pity because otherwise this is a primo story for teens.

Second is that the climax of the tale, though full of action, is a bit flat and disorganized. It has a first-drafty feel, as though Wilson was running out of time or energy. I wish she had taken a few more hours to make the last dozen pages as engaging as the rest.

That said, though, this is a fine, fun, engaging, and in some ways eye-opening read.

Alif the Unseen is available in a multitude of formats from (and thank you for using my links).


“I’m not a terrorist. All I do is protect people who want the freedom to say what they really think.”

The Hand stepped back toward the door. His eyes still shone oddly in the light, black discs that reflected only fluorescence.

“What naive garbage. People don’t want freedom any more — even those to whom freedom is a kind of religion are afraid of it, like trembling acolytes who make sacrifices to some pagan god. People want their governments to keep secrets from them. They want the hand of the law to be brutal. They are so terrified by their own power that they will vote to have it taken our of their hands. Look at America. Look at the sharia states. Freedom is a dead philosophy, Alif. The world is returning to its natural state, to the rule of the weak by the strong. Young as you are, it’s you who are out of touch, not me.”


  1. RickB
    RickB July 30, 2012 4:01 am

    Haven’t read the book but I will pick up a copy. (Side note: whenever I buy a Kindle book I feel like Wiley Coyete. Drop the order form in the mailbox and a few seconds later the Acme truck pulls up!)
    I don’t understand parents who don’t want their kids exposed to rough language–and then send them to government school. A huge percentage of middle-schoolers are are downright nasty!
    I encouraged my boys to read thought-provoking books whatever their “rating.” Then I demonstrated by example that we don’t talk or behave that way in our family. It worked and, years later, it’s still working.

  2. Woody
    Woody July 30, 2012 4:11 am

    “Bad words” have always been a strange concept to me. Better that parents explain the concept to their kids, the absurdity of it all, and then caution them not to use them in inappropriate settings, rather than ban their utterance altogether.

  3. annon
    annon July 30, 2012 7:09 am

    Speaking of bad words…I wonder what word the Michigan state senate would have her use instead of vagina?

  4. Matt, another
    Matt, another July 30, 2012 8:25 am

    Wow. Looks good enough I might even pry open my wallet to make a new book, purchase. Thanks!

  5. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty July 30, 2012 11:47 am

    Oh, I’ll have to bookmark and think about this in a week or two. I got a tad carried away at Amazon in July… And this e-book is a bit pricey for an unknown author anyway. But, it does sound interesting.

  6. RickB
    RickB July 31, 2012 3:52 am

    Bought it last night–and it is pricey. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it thoroughly.
    I have it on Kindle–and I have heard that there’s a way to loan such books to other Kindle owners. If one of Claire’s commenters wants to borrow my copy (when I’m done!) just figure out how it is done and let me know.

  7. Claire
    Claire July 31, 2012 7:28 am

    RickB — that’s nice of you. I have no idea how it’s done, but surely somebody here will. Glad you’re enjoying the book.

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