Genies, Botnets, and State Security, Oh my!

I just finished reading a wonderful new book, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. It takes place in a fictional contemporary Arab emirate that’s on the boiling point of the Arab Spring. Alif is a young guy, a hacker, who makes a shady, but honorable living hiding his clients’—bloggers of every subversive type: Islamists, secularists, communists, whatever—Internet footprints from the emirate’s state security, run by a man who Alif and his digital friends have nicknamed the Hand of God. Alif falls in love with a highborn girl. They meet, spend a dreamy weekend together, then she tells him she has been promised to someone else by her father. The someone else turns out to be, guess who, the Hand of God, himself, and now he knows about Alif.

Alif fries his bedroom servers, and clumsily gets his neighbor, Dina, a girl he grew up with, involved by having her carry a message to the highborn girl. Alif and Dina go on the run. This is where the story rolls off into an amazing world of its own. The highborn girl gave Dina a book to hide, an ancient book, a one of a kind book, a book dictated by a jinn, full of dense layers of meaning that can only be understood by the jinn, and the Hand of God wants it. Desperate to be unseen, Alif and Dina descend into the magical world of the jinn to seek the protection of a dangerous genie named Vikram the Vampire.

The story is a magical adventure set to the heartbeat of young love, revolution, and warring botnets. It has its own dense layers of conflicting social, philosophical, and religious meaning handled with a wit and charm that makes it all part of the forward momentum of the tale.

So, yeah, I loved it. I hadn’t heard of G. Willow Wilson before. She’s an American who converted to Islam and now lives in Cairo. This is her first novel, but she has written award winning and Eisner nominated graphic novels. I’ll have to look them up.

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