Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen

by G. Willow Wilson

NOOK Book(eBook)

$10.99 $15.99 Save 31% Current price is $10.99, Original price is $15.99. You Save 31%. View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


“[A] Harry Potter-ish action-adventure romance” set during the Arab Spring, from the New York Times–bestselling author of the Ms. Marvel comic book series (The New York Times).
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker, who goes by Alif, shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, revolutionaries, and other watched groups—from surveillance, and tries to stay out of trouble.
The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and himself on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground.
When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.
This “tale of literary enchantment, political change, and religious mystery” was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (Gregory Maguire).
“Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic.” —Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802194626
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/19/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 64,274
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

G. Willow Wilson was born in New Jersey in 1982 and raised in Colorado. She is also the author of a memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, and the critically acclaimed comics Air and Vixen. She divides her time between Cairo and Seattle.

Read an Excerpt



Long Ago

The thing always appeared in the hour between sunset and full dark.

When the light began to wane in the afternoon, casting shadows of gray and violet across the stable yard below the tower where he worked, Reza would give himself over to shuddering waves of anxiety and anticipation. Each day, as evening approached, memory inevitably carried him back sixty years, to the arms of his wet nurse. The twilight hour is when the jinn grow restless, she had told him. She was Turkish, and never threw his bathwater out the window without asking the pardon of the hidden folk who lived in the ground below. If she failed to warn them, the indignant creatures might curse her young charge, afflicting him with blindness or the spotted disease.

When Reza was a young student, and had not yet learned wisdom, he dismissed her fears as superstition.

Now he was an old man with failing teeth. As the sun flushed up, touching the dome of the shah's palace across the square, a familiar terror began to provoke his bowels. His apprentice loitered at the back of the workroom, picking over the remains of his master's lunch. Reza could feel the contemptuous look the pimpled youth leveled at his back as he stood in the window, watching the progress of the dying sun.

"Bring me the manuscript," said Reza, without turning. "Set out my inkwell and my reed pens. Make everything ready."

"Yes, master." The youth's tone was surly. He was the third son of a minor noble, and had neither scholarly nor spiritual inclinations to speak of. Once — only once — Reza had allowed the boy to remain when the thing visited him, hoping his apprentice would see, and understand, and tell Reza he was not mad. He did not. When the creature arrived, congealing inside the chalk-an-dash summoning circle Reza had drawn at the center of the workroom, the boy did not appear to notice. He stared at his master in blank irritation as the shadow in the circle unfolded itself and grew limbs, caricaturing the form of a man. When Reza addressed the apparition, the boy had laughed, scorn and disbelief mingling in his ringing voice.

"Why?" Reza had asked the creature desperately. "Why won't you let him see you?"

In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.

He chooses not to see, it said.

Reza worried that the boy would report his master's clandestine activities to his father, who would then alert the orthodox functionaries at the palace, who in turn would have him imprisoned for sorcery. But his apprentice had said nothing, and continued to return day after day for his lessons. It was only the lethargy of his service and the contempt in his voice that told Reza he had lost the boy's respect.

"The ink has dried on the pages I wrote yesterday," Reza said when his apprentice returned with his pens and ink. "They're ready for preservation. Have you mixed more varnish?"

The boy looked up at him, color draining from his face.

"I can't," he said, surliness evaporating. "Please. It's too awful. I don't want to — "

"Very well," said Reza with a sigh. "I'll do it myself. You can go."

The boy bolted for the door.

Reza sat down at his table, pulling a large stone bowl toward himself. The work would distract him until evening arrived. Into the bowl, he poured a portion of the precious mastic resin that had been simmering over a charcoal brazier since early morning. He added several drops of black oil from the seed of the nigella and stirred to keep the liquid from hardening. When he was satisfied with the consistency of the mixture, he gingerly lifted the linen veil from an unassuming metal pot sitting at one end of the work table.

A scent filled the room: sharp, alarming, viscerally female. Reza thought of his wife, alive and blooming and big with the child that had died with her. This scent had permeated the linens of their bed before Reza ordered his servants to carry it away and burn it. For a moment, he felt lost. Forcing himself to be impassive, he separated what he needed from the viscous mess and, lifting it with metal tongs, dropped it unceremoniously into the cooling bowl of varnish. He counted out several minutes on his knuckles before looking in the bowl again. The varnish had turned as clear and glistening as honey.

Reza carefully laid out the pages he had transcribed during the creature's last visit. He wrote in Arabic, not Persian, hoping that this precaution would prevent his work from being misused should it fall into the hands of the uneducated and uninitiated. The manuscript was thus a double translation: first into Persian from the voiceless language in which the creature spoke, which fell on Reza's ears like the night echoes of childhood, when sleep was preceded by that solitary, fearful journey between waking and dreaming. Then from Persian into Arabic, the language of Reza's education, as mathematical and efficient as the creature's speech was diffuse.

The result was perplexing. The stories were there, rendered as well as Reza could manage, but something had been lost. When the creature spoke, Reza would drift into a kind of trance, watching strange shapes amplify themselves again and again, until they resembled mountains, coastlines, the pattern of frost on glass. In these moments he felt sure he had accomplished his desire, and the sum of knowledge was within his reach. But as soon as the stories were fixed on paper, they shifted. It was as if the characters themselves — the princess, the nurse, the bird king, and all the rest — had grown sly and slipped past Reza as he attempted to render them in human proportions.

Reza dipped a horsehair brush into the stone bowl and began to coat the new pages in a thin layer of varnish. The nigella oil prevented the heavy paper from buckling. The other ingredient, the one his apprentice had obtained with so much misgiving, would keep the manuscript alive long after Reza himself had gone, protecting it from decay. If he could not unlock the true meaning behind the thing's words, someone would, someday.

Reza was so intent on his work that he did not notice when the sun slid past the dome of the palace, disappearing behind the dry peaks of the Zagros Mountains on the far horizon. A chill in the room alerted him to the coming of twilight. Reza's heart began to tap at his breastbone. Carefully, before the fear took hold in earnest, he placed the varnished pages on a screen to dry. On a shelf nearby were their companions, a thick sheaf of them, awaiting the completion of the final story. Once he was finished, Reza would sew the pages together with silk thread and bind them between linen-covered pasteboards.

And then what?

The voice came, as always, from within his own mind. Reza straightened, his stiff joints cracking as he moved. He steadied his breathing.

"Then I will study," he said in a calm voice. "I will read each story again and again until I have committed them all to memory and their power becomes clear to me." The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever. But it was so — a testament, he hoped, to the depth of his learning. Reza had bound the thing successfully, and now it was compelled to return day after day until it completed the narration of its stories.

"I will study," it says. The thing's voice was spiteful. But what can it hope to gain? The Alf Yeom is beyond its understanding.

Reza drew his robes about him and squared his shoulders, attempting to look dignified.

"So you claim, but your race was never known for honesty."

At least we're honest with ourselves, and do not covet what is not ours. Man was exiled from the Garden for eating a single fruit, and now you propose to uproot the whole tree without the angels noticing. You're an old fool, and the Deceiver whispers in your ear.

"I am an old fool." Reza sat down heavily on his workbench. "But now it's too late to be otherwise. The only way forward is through. Let me complete my work, and I will release you."

The thing howled piteously and slammed itself against the edge of the circle. It was immediately knocked backward, rebuffed by a barrier Reza had created but could not see.

What do you want? the creature whimpered. Why do you force me to tell you what I should not? These are not your stories. They are ours.

"They are yours, but you don't understand them," snapped Reza. "Only Adam was given true intellect, and only the banu adam have the power to call things by their right names. What you call the bird king and the hind and the stag — these are only symbols to disguise a hidden message, just as a poet may write a ghazal about a toothless lion to criticize a weak king. Hidden in your stories is the secret power of the unseen." The stories are their own message, said the thing, with something like a sigh. That's the secret.

"I will assign each element of each story a number," said Reza, ignoring this alarming pronouncement. "And in doing so create a code that determines their quantitative relationship to one another. I will gain power over them —" He broke off. A breeze had stirred through the open window and the scent of drying varnish wafted toward him. Reza thought again of his wife.

You've lost something, said the creature shrewdly.

"It's not your problem."

No story or code or secret on earth can raise the dead.

"I don't want raise the dead. I just want to know — I want —"

The thing listened. Its yellow eyes were fixed and unblinking. Reza remembered the herbal remedies and the cupping and the incense to clear the air and the low terse words of the midwives as they moved about the bloody bed, pulling their veils over their mouths to speak to him as he stood by, useless and despairing.

"Control," he said finally.

The creature sat back, draping its not-arms over its notknees, and regarded him.

Get your pen and paper, it said. I will tell you the final story. It comes with a warning.

"What's that?" When you hear it, you will become someone else.

"What nonsense."

The creature smiled.

Get your pen, it repeated.


The Persian Gulf


Alif sat on the cement ledge of his bedroom window, basking in the sun of a hot September. The light was refracted by his lashes. When he looked through them, the world became a pixilated frieze of blue and white. Staring too long in this unfocused way caused a sharp pain in his forehead, and he would look down again, watching shadows bloom behind his eyelids. Near his foot lay a thin chrome-screened smartphone — pirated, though whether it came west from China or east from America he did not know. He didn't mess with phones. Another hack had set this one up for him, bypassing the encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages he had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All went unanswered.

He gazed at the smartphone through half-closed eyes. If he fell asleep, she would call. He would wake up with a jerk as the phone rang, sending it inadvertently over the ledge into the little courtyard below, forcing him to rush downstairs and search for it among the jasmine bushes. These small misfortunes might prevent a larger one: the possibility that she might not call at all.

"The law of entropy," he said to the phone. It glinted in the sun. Below him, the black-and-orange cat that had been hunting beetles in their courtyard for as long as he could remember came nipping across the baked ground, lifting her pink-soled paws high to cool them. When he called to her she gave an irritated warble and slunk beneath a jasmine bush.

"Too hot for cat or man," said Alif. He yawned and tasted metal. The air was thick and oily, like the exhalation of some great machine. It invaded rather than relieved the lungs and, in combination with the heat, produced an instinctive panic. Intisar once told him that the City hates her inhabitants and tries to suffocate them. She — for Intisar insisted the City was female — remembers a time when purer thoughts bred purer air: the reign of Sheikh Abdel Sabbour, who tried so valiantly to stave off the encroaching Europeans; the dawn of Jamat Al Basheera, the great university; and earlier, the summer courts of Pari-Nef, Onieri, Bes. She has had kinder names than the one she bears now. Islamized by a jinn-saint, or so the story goes, she sits at a crossroads between the earthly world and the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts. If not for the blessings of the jinn-saint entombed beneath the mosque at Al Basheera, who heard the message of the Prophet and wept, the City might be as overrun with hidden folk as it is with tourists and oil men.

I almost think you believe that, Alif had said to Intisar.

Of course I believe it, said Intisar. The tomb is real enough. You can visit it on Fridays. The jinn-saint's turban is sitting right on top.

Sunlight began to fail in the west, across the ribbon of desert beyond the New Quarter. Alif pocketed his phone and slid off the window ledge, back into his room. Once it was dark, perhaps, he would try again to reach her. Intisar had always preferred to meet at night. Society didn't mind if you broke the rules; it only required you to acknowledge them. Meeting after dark showed a presence of mind. It suggested that you knew what you were doing went against the prevailing custom and had taken pains to avoid being caught. Intisar, noble and troubling, with her black hair and her dove-low voice, was worthy of this much discretion.

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif — a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed. Knowing this, he had entertained Intisar's need to keep their relationship a secret long after he himself had tired of the effort. If clandestine meetings fanned her love, so be it. He could wait another hour or two.

The tart smell of rasam and rice drifted up through the open window. He would go down to the kitchen and eat — he had eaten nothing since breakfast. A knock on the other side of the wall, just behind his Robert Smith poster, stopped him on his way out the door. He bit his lip in frustration. Perhaps he could slip by undetected. But the knock was followed by a precise little series of taps: &pgrave;~ She had heard him get down from the window. Sighing, Alif rapped twice on Robert Smith's grainy black-and-white knee.

Dina was already on the roof when he got there. She faced the sea, or what would be the sea if it were visible through the tangle of apartment buildings to the east.

"What do you want?" Alif asked.

She turned and tilted her head, brows contracting in the slim vent of her face-veil.

"To return your book," she said. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing." He made an irritated gesture. "Give me the book then."

Dina reached into her robe and drew out a battered copy of The Golden Compass. "Aren't you going to ask me what I thought?" she demanded.

"I don't care. The English was probably too difficult for you."

"It was no such thing. I understood every word. This book" — she waved it in the air — "is full of pagan images. It's dangerous."

"Don't be ignorant. They're metaphors. I told you you wouldn't understand."

"Metaphors are dangerous. Calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name."

Alif snatched the book from her hand. There was a hiss of fabric as Dina tucked her chin, eyes disappearing beneath her lashes. Though he had not seen her face in nearly ten years, Alif knew she was pouting.

"I'm sorry," he said, pressing the book to his chest. "I'm not feeling well today."

Dina was silent. Alif looked impatiently over her shoulder: he could see a section of the Old Quarter glimmering on a rise beyond the shoddy collection of residential neighborhoods around them. Intisar was somewhere within it, like a pearl embedded in one of the ancient mollusks the ghataseen sought along the beaches that kissed its walls. Perhaps she was working on her senior thesis, poring over books of early Islamic literature; perhaps she was taking a swim in the sandstone pool in the courtyard of her father's villa. Perhaps she was thinking of him.


Excerpted from "Alif the Unseen"
by .
Copyright © 2012 G. Willow Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Alif the Unseen,
The Five Types of Jinn,
Author G. Willow Wilson,,
on Writing Alif the Unseen,
An Interview with G. Willow Wilson,
on Fantasy in Dictatorships,,
Cross-Cultural Understanding,,
and the Arab Spring,
Alif the Unseen,
Chapter Zero,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Alif the Unseen 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Samantha_V More than 1 year ago
I was totally blown away by this book. It was not what I was expecting. If you thought genies were cartoon characters living in lamps like in Aladdin, think again. The genies (or jinn) in this book are both frightening, bizarre and yet totally relatable in an almost human way. (And funny too!) The cast of characters is incredibly diverse, and each has his/her own unique and endearing flaws. The setting--a Middle Eastern city referred to only as "The City" is very believable. I don't know much about the Middle East but if you told me this was set in a real city there, I would totally buy it. Yet at the same time, there are fantastical elements lurking beneath the surface that are unexpected, charming, and weird. Bring this one to the beach with you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Full of action,fantasy,romance,and insights into a foreign culture. Takes a while to really get into, but a great book.definitely one to reread
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully blends Arabian mythology with computer technology while delivering a great adventure novel. The author is well versed on Islamic culture and give us an insider view.
Mel-Loves-Books More than 1 year ago
“Because even when I was annoyed with the boy you were, I liked the man I knew you would become.” Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson was such a unique read for me. It is probably my first book set in Muslim culture and I found it all so fascinating. It did deal with a lot of technology and computer language, which honestly flew way over my head, but I was able to understand enough that it didn’t take away from the story for me. And reading about the culture and the fantasy set in this culture made the book for me. I seriously enjoyed it and would love to read more by this author. I give this book 4.5 stars.
marciathing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I would give this book six or seven stars if I could. It's an excellent story set in the Middle East, dealing with hackers, State security goons, men and women, and maybe even a few jinns. The story line is believable and engrossing, and resolves itself well.
krau0098 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I got an advanced reading copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program for review. This was a creative and interesting book that combines mythology, cyberpunk, and political activism.Alif is the name for a young Arab-Indian hacker who generally spends his days protecting his clients from surveillance and censoring. Alif has also fallen in love with young aristocratic woman. Suddenly things fall apart for Alif; his lover spurns him and the State agency known as the Hand infiltrates his system. Alif ends up on the run. He meets with his lover one last time and she gives his a strange book. Who knew that Djinn really existed? Alif is forced to flee through both our world and a magical one as he tries to stop the Hand from destroying both his work and that of his friends.This book reminds a lot of previous books you might have read; but is a unique combination of all of these books. There is a bit of Gaiman¿s Neverwhere in here in how the city of the djinn is hidden within Alif¿s city, there are also the quirky characters and flight from unknown evil. There is a bit of Stephenson¿s Snow Crash in here as well, which shows in the hacking sequences and in the rebellion towards the government. This story is part mythology, part cyberpunk, and part political statement all set in the Middle East.That being said it was different than anything I have ever read before. It gave some interesting incite into Middle Eastern politics and culture. At the same time it also references some unique mythology from that region. This is not a book you read quickly, this is a book that you need to think times it gets a bit dense.This is a creative story, as I said I¿ve never read anything like this before. The characters are all pretty good and interesting; although this is more a plot driven story than a character driven one. I don¿t know a ton about the Middle East and it was incredibly interesting how the culture was blended in to the rest of the story. Practical issues, like how women eat around their veils, were mentioned in the telling; there are just a lot of interesting cultural things that I never really considered before.Additionally this story bluntly discusses a lot of other issues in the Middle East region; repression, sexism, censorship, corruption, and separation of social casts. This ended up making the story somewhat educational, despite the fact it is a fantasy.This is also a wonderful fantasy/urban fantasy. Alif walks in and out of the world of the djinn; it is an interesting concept and an unique world. I love how Alif discovers a new way to program that he believes he has learned from the djinn¿s book of stories.My only complaints would be at times the book is a bit dense and towards the middle-end of the book I thought the pacing was a bit slow. Also, although the characters are fairly well done, they weren¿t characters that totally engaged me and pulled me into the story. They were interesting, but I never really cared a lot about them.Overall an excellent urban fantasy/cyberpunk/political story. This book is unlike anything I have ever read before. I loved how Middle Eastern culture was blended into this fantasy and how we get to see some scenes of every day life. I loved even more that the mythology of this region was highly incorporated into this story. Then of course there were the glorious hacker scenes; where it is code against code to see who saves the world. My only complaints are that the story is dense (which makes it a slow read at times) and the characters were decent, yet not highly compelling. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy/cyberpunk or for those who are just interesting in Middle Eastern culture.
BMedvid More than 1 year ago
I read Alif as the monthly selection for my book club. The main character, Alif, summarizes the book nicely when he says "A girl he loved had decided that she did not love him - at least not enough. How was such a problem usually addressed? Surely not with the clandestine exchange of books and computer surveillance and recourse to the jinn." He later describes his situation as "I was a computer geek with girl issues. That sounds pretty ordinary to me." This story is anything but ordinary. I found it to be a fun, adventurous, and enjoyable read. It can be read for pure entertainment, but, it also has content for deeper investigations and conversations. The author combines classic computer geek culture, modern day socio-political themes, religion, and the supernatural into a fantasy thriller style novel. For me, she was successful, and this was a classic good versus evil story. Wilson includes quite a bit of tension between the unseen/hidden/belief and the seen/known/reality, as well as between the supernatural and "real" world. The unseen is manifested in many ways throughout the story including the computer aliases that protect and shield the gray-hat hacktivists, the traditional clothing of veils and robes worn by many characters, the unknown state censors, and most importantly to the story, the world of jinns. As the book progresses, that which is hidden and unseen becomes seen and known. This is especially true for many of the characters in the novel. At first, I found Alif to be a rather pathetic main character who lacked courage and whose whining/pining was irritating. However, as Dina so eloquently says to him "I was annoyed with the boy you were, I liked the man I knew you would become." This was also true for me. At the end, I felt I understood and like Alif as he grew and changed. Dina also becomes better known to both Alif and the reader. I truly liked her character. She is a character of piety, devotion, gentleness, and contentedness who chooses to wear veils. Yet none of that keeps her from being a "bad-ass" who can quickly cut to the chase with both her words and actions. Her perceptions, understanding, and believe in and about the supernatural and reality are insightfully keen. Dina truly knows and sees herself, it is up to the reader and Alif to move her from unseen to known. Other characters change and reveal their true selves throughout the story including Intisar, The Hand, NewQuarter, Azalel, and many other of the Jinn. The story also explores the ideas of the role and importance of religion in society and compares and contrasts it to more ancient supernatural fantasies. I particularly liked when the conversation between Alif and the Sheikh as they were discussing the morality of actions conducted in virtual space. The conversation ends with the quotation, "If a video game does more to fulfill a young person than the words of prophecy, it means people like me (the Sheikh) have failed in a rather spectacular fashion." This was followed by Alif saying "You're not a failure ... It's only that we don't feel safe. A game has a reset button. You have infinite chances for success. Real life is awfully permanent compared to that,". Definitely interesting food for thought. In many places, the novel seems to try and blend mysticism and spirituality. I enjoyed the parallel tracks of having a man of religion along with a jinn.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Despite the marketing (references to Harry Potter, etc.,) on the book jacket, this is NOT a book for young readers. Explicit language and scenes throughout the book. Story was okay.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont see any instructions
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry but I cant chat anymore.i dont know why.chapter ten of my bok is out at spray result 8 or 9(the books got mixed up)if you get a roblox account my user name is can search me under people.but make your user name something like sageleaf568 or something like webkinz user name is tm123456 but i rarely go on.bye!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a rip off. U pay for 350 pages but there is one paragraph of writing on every page and as a whole it does not tell a story. U don't encounter the demon and u never see him hak anything. Bad writing bad purchase.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where are the instructions?