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Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

9/10 A sumptuous, colourful and many-layered novel.

It’s a world of anonymous hackers, codenames, women shrouded by veils, hidden worlds and things that can barely be fathomed by human eyes. It’s a world where the cutting edge of computer programming becomes a battleground against a dusty backdrop of centuries-old religious beliefs and caste systems.

Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson, an American author who lives in Cairo and who brings the Middle East into many of her works, follows a young, brilliant computer programmer who lives in the Persian Gulf where skin colour still determines how high you can rise on the social scale and interactions between men and women are still highly constrained. Online however, he is a master – with the handle of Alif, the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, he protects his clients from censers, whoever they may be. But a programme more powerful than anybody has seen before is combing the internet – The Hand, and when Alif is given an old book that contains the stories of the djinn his world is torn apart as the far past and the present collide.

This is a beautifully written book, which clearly demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of both Middle Eastern culture and the digital landscape mixed with a gloriously painted setting of dusty, ragged homes and the call to prayer from mosques echoing across the cityscape, weighed down by tradition and religious constraints. There is a great driving energy to the book as Alif has to outwit The Hand both in the real world and the virtual world and eventually unravel the meaning of the stories in The Thousand and One Days, deal with the pain of love and loss and enter the world of the djiin in order to unlock the book’s secrets, all of which require him to change the way he thinks.

I would highly recommend this book to anybody who like a ripping yarn, whether they are into fantasy or not because this is more of a thriller with echoes of the computer acrobatics seen in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, which I find really interesting, but set against an exotic landscape that really comes to life. You can feel and smell the duststorm as it sweeps over the houses, seeping its way in through the cracks, the panic as The Hand, an unbending, alien force, closes in, and the awkwardness of a young American scholar who tries to help Alif but is so clearly out of place.

Overall, a sumptuous, colourful and many-layered novel.

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