Previously best known for her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, and her work in comics, including the too-short-lived monthly Vertigo title Air, G. Willow Wilson now turns her attention to the novel. And what a first novel Alif the Unseen is. An outgrowth of research she did during work on her memoir that led to her discovery of the burgeoning digital underground and its political impact, Alif is a novel that fantasy readers won’t want to miss. The publisher has evoked Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and Neal Stephenson for comparisons, and Wilson does indeed have the same sense of myth and magic, accomplished prose and heady ideas, engaging characters and gripping story that characterizes their work.
Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with a severe security crackdown – particularly on hackers and the like – the novel first introduces us to Alif, which is, of course, a handle taken from the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif’s first love, his first real romance outside ones and zeroes, flames out in a spectacular revelation that Intisar – his intended, a bride from a family with old wealth – is going to marry another. Spurned, Alif decides to grant Intisar her wish never to see him or even his name again. He invents a program that can identify her with pinpoint accuracy from even a sentence, a program that might be magic itself, and that will cloak him from her as if he’d never existed… but it doesn’t keep the security state from detecting his presence. And it turns out Intisar is to marry The Hand himself, the head of the crackdown efforts.
When next-door neighbor Dina brings him a gift from Intisar – a strange and mysterious old book – and the two are forced onto the run together, things get strange and mythic indeed. A fusion of the Arab Spring with djinn lore and a thoroughly modern thriller plot, Wilson’s novel just might be the debut of the year. Highly recommended to all fantasy readers.