One of the best graphic novels I’ve read since getting back into comics was Cairo, a Middle Eastern fantasy mixing a thrilling adventure plot with Buffy-like created family and Middle Eastern politics, religion, and cultural lore. That book’s writer, G. Willow Wilson, makes a smooth transition to fiction with her novel Alif the Unseen (2012), a stirring, memorable debut. Set in a fictional emirate on the Persian Gulf, the book follows the adventures of Alif, a clandestine computer “hacktivist.” Alif’s business involves protecting the online interests of individuals across the Middle East whose lifestyles run counter to the oppressive regimes under which they’re living. But his forbidden love affair with a woman from the Old Quarter leads to severe consequences, pitting him against “the Hand” of State, a ruthless government functionary charged with clamping down on Internet freedom in the City. The Hand identifies Alif as public enemy number one, forcing Alif to flee and, in desperation, seek the aid of the jinn, unseen magical entities that live in the City’s interstices.
On its surface, Alif the Unseen is an effortlessly read page-turner, populated with well drawn and sympathetic characters struggling against unjust systems. But there’s more to it than its engaging adventure plot. It’s also a potent political allegory, integrating serious religious and geopolitical subtext into its fast-paced comic book narrative. Fantasy tropes and science fictional ideas blend seamlessly as subversive computer hackers, magical beings, and villainous autocrats clash against a refreshing Middle Eastern urban fantasy backdrop. Best of all, it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before – a unique and potent combination of disparate ideas and elements. Highly recommended, to say the least; I really look forward to following Wilson’s career.