Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The unseen

“So the stories aren’t just stories, is what you’re saying. They’re really secret knowledge disguised as stories.” 

“One could say that of all stories, younger brother.” 

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson starts out like a street-level Arab Spring thriller, then takes an unexpected turn into myth and fable. I thought it was terrific.

The novel is set in an unnamed Persian Gulf city sweating under an oppressive regime. Alif is the online alias of a young computer programmer and hacker who has carved out a niche for himself, protecting various online groups from surveillance. He doesn’t care who his clients are - Islamists, feminists, criminals - he’s willing to use his skills to hide them all from the State, no questions asked.

Then he gets into girl trouble. His lover’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and she doesn’t want to see Alif again. Furious and hurt, Alif resorts to stalking her online.

This is a mistake for more than one reason: the State uses his tracking program to find him. Worse, the girl has given him a strange book of stories that, for some reason, the State is willing to kill for.

Alif is blown, his clients are in jeopardy, and he is on the run. Tangled up in this mess with him is Dina, a young woman from his apartment building, whom he has known and ignored his whole life. Alif and Dina are forced to seek help from a legendary smuggler and criminal known as Vikram the Vampire.

And Vikram turns out to be … something else. Not a vampire, but not human, either. Something unseen, something that most people don’t even notice because he’s too dangerous and too strange. Will he help Alif and Dina? And what price will he ask?

Alif the Unseen mixes modern-day Middle Eastern politics with Arabian and Persian folklore, a blend that I found exciting and entertaining. The arc of Alif’s character (he grows out of his jilted cyberstalker phase, I’m happy to say) is satisfying, and Vikram the Vampire is a scary, funny scoundrel who was great fun to get to know. The book has interesting things to say about symbols and myth and storytelling, too.

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