A tour-de-force of a debut that blends classic fantasy -- the fascinating, frightening, sometimes-invisible world of the djinn -- that's genies to some of us -- with the 21st-century reality of a super-hacker in mortal danger in a repressive security state on the Arabian Gulf.
Alif (that's his handle) is a brilliant young superhacker working out of his mother's small apartment, and his computer has just been breached. While Alif scrambles to protect his clients -- dissidents and outlaws alike, whoever needs to hide their digital traces, he and his friends realize that they've been found by 'the Hand' -- maybe a person, maybe a program, but definitely able to find anyone, and that could lead to prison, or worse. Alif, with the help of his childhood friend Dina, an ancient book sent to him in secret by his lost love (who may be frighteningly connected to the Hand) and a terrifying protector who almost looks human, must go underground -- or rather, find a way into the hidden world of the djinn. They wrote the mysterious book centuries ago, and have knowledge that might just allow Alif to infiltrate the most sophisticated information technology the world has ever seen, and perhaps save himself, his loved ones, and freedom itself. With shades of Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, William Gibson, and the timeless Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour-de-force debut with major potential -- a masterful, addictive blend of the ancient and the more-than-modern, smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.
Set in an unnamed Arab emirate, Wilson's intriguing, colorful first novel centers on a callow Arab-Indian computer hacker who calls himself "Alif," the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif surreptitiously creates digital protection, at a price, for Islamic dissidents being threatened by the chief of state security (aka "the Hand of God"). When Intisar, Alif's aristocratic beloved, opportunistically throws Alif over for the Hand, he flees into the desert, along with a female neighbor, Dina, pursued by the Hand. Dina carries the 700-year-old jinn-dictated The Thousand and One Days (the inverse of The Thousand and One Nights), which contains secrets disguised in stories that may help Alif remake his world. Wilson (The Butterfly Mosque, a memoir) provocatively juxtaposes ancient Arab lore and equally esoteric computer theory, highlighting the many facets of the East-West conflict while offering few insights, to some readers' regret, into possible resolutions of that conflict. 10-city author tour.