G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel Alif the Unseen is an unusual and appealing blend of political thriller, Arabian Nights fantasy, and literary fiction. The protagonist is the title character, a young Arab-Indian man living in an unnamed Persian Gulf state. He makes his living as a hacker, but for the most part, instead of trying to break into the computers, he works to protect his clients from the biggest hacker of all: the state security forces that troll chat rooms, blogs, and other Internet gathering places in hopes of catching dissidents.
When a girl he met online cuts him loose after a marriage is arranged for her, Alif goes into a manic funk, obeying her final wish to have no contact so thoroughly that he creates a program that will prevent her from being able to find him or anything he posts online. This program can take the input from a computer user, even if it is carefully protected, and identify the user after just a few posts, even a few keystrokes. Everything goes wrong, when The Hand, the feared head of the state security services steals the program from Alif’s computer. Alif has unwittingly given him a tool to track down any opponent of the state who uses a computer.
Alif has to go on the run, dragging Dina, a neighbor girl who grew up with him and a devout Muslim, with him. He’s also carrying what seems to be the Alf Yeom, the daytime equivalent of the Thousand and One Nights, and possibly a source of mystic information about the world of the jinn. He turns to a criminal overlord called Vikram the Vampire for help in hiding, and that’s when things turn really strange, as Vikram and his cohorts turn out to be more than just common street criminals.
There are plenty of fantastical elements in Alif the Unseen, but the novel will work perfectly well for book group members who don’t normally read fantasy. Wilson’s characters are well drawn, suspense and pacing are good throughout, and your group could support a full discussion about life and activism in a modern Arab state, about the status of women there, and about the difficulty of forming relationships in such an environment, to name just a few themes.
This is that rare title that manages to feel both exotic and relevant to the contemporary world, and that makes it a great choice for a variety of readers.