You have no idea how much I want you to read this book.
I have a confession to make — I hardly ever pay attention to who writes my comic books. Sometimes I see a name and it looks vaguely familiar. Very rarely do I remember the names or who writes what. It’s all pretty similar anyway, you know? I was at least three issues into Ms. Marvel before I wondered who was writing it. Turned out it was G. Willow Wilson, who’s been winning awards for her comics since her first publication in 2007, and who is an American convert to Islam. I thought that was pretty cool, and went on about my business. Then I stumbled upon Alif the Unseen at the library, recognized the author, and took it home.
This book is amazing. It’s a fantasy novel from 2012, set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, belonging in the adult fiction section but with a heavy helping of YA sensibilities. Here’s the description:
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.
The first thing to say is that there really are jinn in this book. It’s not that kind of “ancient object” thriller that never actually goes anywhere interesting. No, this is a book full of magic. It’s also a book full of computers and hackers. The two things aren’t divided here, they’re part of a beautiful mass of information technology. It’s an impassioned defense of hacktivism. In Alif’s world, you can write code with ancient allegories. Your behavior online affects your soul. I thought I was alone in my weird fusion of interests, from serious history and political science to irreligious study of religion to the most insane of comic books, but there are more of us out there than you think. (Welcome! This is a book for us!)
Anyway, don’t let me devolve. Here are the things that make Alif the Unseen brilliant: The setting is engrossing. It’s a fantasy novel, and anyone who likes fantasy novels should recognize its fantasy chops, but it draws on Middle Eastern lore instead of the typical Germanic stuff. We’re always hungering for the next novel that will make us feel magic, like we’re walking into a new and wonderful world with new rules where nothing will ever be the same. This is that book. Everything is familiar, yet new. As for the characters, I could swear I’ve known these people all my life. They’re geniuses, petty, noble, cowardly, one-of-a-kind. Each one is fully realized. There are plenty of female characters, each different from the next! As in Ms. Marvel, Wilson shows Muslims from many different backgrounds and motivations, with many different levels of piety. It’s really interesting and valuable to see people we usually think of as “exotic” living and working in their natural habitats, where they’re “normal.” Where their concerns are simultaneously stranger than we imagine and much more prosaic.
I haven’t come close to telling you about all the pieces of my soul this book let out to breathe. I’m not sure I could ever do it justice anyway. The point is, you can read it as a brilliant fantasy novel. You can read it as world drama, if you already like that kind of thing or if you want to diversify the content you consume. You can read it because Ms. Marvel is a sensation. You can read it because it’s a fusion of political science, religion, and several brands of geekiness. You can read it because the emotional experience is something akin to having a digital avatar of Aslan as your therapist. I don’t care, just read it!