Fantasy Novel Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Usually I manage to finish a pair of Bingo cards with a bit of time to spare, but this year, March saw me still hunting for a couple more books to fill some tricky squares. One of those tricky squares was Set in the Middle East, and I decided to circle back to an acclaimed mid-2010s novel I’d missed: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. 

Alif the Unseen takes place in a nameless security state in the Arabian Peninsula, following a talented hacker facing virtual dangers as a faceless state agent shuts chips away at everything he’s worked to build, and police pursue him in the physical world over a book entrusted to him by a former lover. The wild chase will introduce he and a childhood friend to the world of djinn, to the ugliest side of state security, and to programming exploits that are as much magic as anything else. 

Alif the Unseen is a wild ride that hits a fair few familiar tropes, but does so in a setting that will feel fresh for many Western readers. Alif opens as a naive, selfish lead forced to grow up quickly—with the help of a reliable and more mature friend—as he plows through dangers magical and mundane, seeking to keep himself alive and his friends out of prison. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s excitement, but it’s not really a secret what shape the character development will take, or who will be a steady ally, or why the police pursue Alif so doggedly. 

The result is a book that’s high on entertainment, with some quality character progression and a satisfying ending. I suspect that much of its initial acclaim owes to a setting that was less common in Western fantasy ten years ago than it is now, but no doubt it’s a plenty entertaining read. 

Recommended if you like: magico-technothrillers, Middle Eastern settings and mythology.

Can I use it for BingoI used it for 2023 Bingo, but in 2024, it fits Criminals and Dreams.

Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *