Alif the Unseen

G.Willow Wilson

Published by Corvus Books 30 August 2012

427pp, hardback, £12.99 

Reviewed by Lesley Bown

G. Willow Wilson has published graphic novels and an account of her conversion to Islam but Alif the Unseen is her first full length prose novel.

She takes fantasy story conventions and plays around with them, just a little.  Alif is the assumed name of a geeky young computer nerd, who spends his time holed up in his bedroom, coding and yearning for a girl who seems to have gone cold on him.  He hires his skills out to whoever will pay for them, has little time for his religion but has a deep dislike of the repressive regime of the unnamed Arab city where he lives. 

He has a few like-minded acquaintances and all of them live in fear of an entity they call the Hand – they have no idea whether it’s a person, an organization or a computer programme, but it tracks them constantly.  Alif of course is thrown into an adventure that takes him to the edge of his capacity for endurance, collecting around him a crew of stock characters (a feisty girl, a wise old man, an even geekier side-kick).

Throw into this mix Arab culture, Islam, ancient magic and modern computer skills and you have a story that is exciting but not particularly profound.  With passing references to Star Wars, Tolkien, Harry Potter and other sources, and a creative approach to explaining the technical aspects of computing, G. Willow Wilson keeps her tale just the right side of cliché.

The weakest aspect of the book is the depiction of the evil forces, both worldly and other-worldly.  They are described but not really evoked, and none of them will live in the memory like Gollum or Darth Vader.  This is puzzling because other magic creatures, whether forces for good or simply neutral, are brought to life quite convincingly.

During the course of his adventures Alif matures and moves from his prolonged self-centred adolescence into adulthood, and as with all fairy tales the more he is able to take responsibility for his actions and see beyond the surfaces of things, the better his chances of survival.  However this is not a novel of deep psychological insight, nor is it an analysis of Islam and the Arab world.  It’s a fantasy adventure story without a deeper purpose, or perhaps without the subtlety to convey a deeper purpose.

As such it is heavy on plot.  The single strand narrative, which focuses entirely on Alif, is constructed on a simple ‘and then’ basis, with surprises, actions, and consequences tumbling one after the other.  Again there is not much depth.  Sometimes Alif makes good decisions, sometimes bad ones, sometimes he gets away with it, sometimes he doesn’t.  A plot like this needs a good final twist, one that sends the reader’s heart thumping before everything gets sorted out.  The twist is there, but somewhat underwritten.

While Alif the Unseen is readable and helps pass the time – on a beach or a journey say – everything about it could do with cranking up a gear or two.  The characters could be deeper, the plot more gripping, the underlying theme stronger and more coherent.  Words, after all, can say so much more than pictures.

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