This is G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel. Previously she has been known for graphic novels and a non-fiction work called “The Butterfly Mosque.” Her first foray into fiction is a fun, exciting read which crosses various genres: Cyber/Sci-Fi, Adventure and particularly Fantasy and the blending of these differing genres works wonderfully in the story that unfolds within its pages. This novel was completed just prior to “The Arab Spring” which only makes this novel more poignant and more connected to current events.
The protagonist, “Alif”, is the handle of an Indian-Arab “hacktivist” who uses his computer skills developing software that helps conceal various groups from being seen across cyberspace: Communists, Anarchists, arms dealers, political dissidents, Hackers, Islamists - he has no political agenda nor cares who his clients are and he is well paid for his efforts. His work is guided by the belief that everyone should be allowed to speak their minds freely. Alif lives in an unnamed emirate in the Persian Gulf - a small “security state” in which the mere criticism of the royal family that runs it can lead to prison, torture and death. Alif is a young man - presumably in his early 20s - and isn’t immune to the many problems kids his age face, particularly the feeling of being an outsider and naturally, his issues with young women. He is in love with a young woman named Intisar, an Arab girl from a wealthy family who by previous arrangement, has been promised to another for marriage.
After she calls off the affair, Alif is heartbroken and sets out to create a program that will not only hide his presence from her on the internet but would also be able to detect her through an algorithm which could read her “personality” as she types, thereby allowing himself to keep tabs on her. His program works better than he ever imagined and soon it gains a life of its own, endangering the lives of those he’s been paid to protect. In short, it opens a gateway to an unimaginable power that someone who had been trying to track him down - known as “The Hand” - could potentially use to give the State increased, almost limitless power. It is also a gateway into an “unseen” world - the world of the jinn. And one day when Intisar gives him an ancient book called the “Alf Yeom” - an ancient manuscript written by jinn, he soon comes to realize that this ancient book can be used to create, via code, the ultimate security system. Alif, along with his childhood friend Dina, a pious Muslim girl who lives in the same building as him, hacktivist friends and a crude, free-spirited jinn, finds himself on an adventure that could not only endanger his own life and those around him, but the world as a whole.
What follows is an adventure/fantasy, filled with action, humor and social commentary. There are shades of J.K. Rowling here and this book can be seen as a sort of “Muslim Harry Potter” with it’s magical interludes, ancient tales, and a healthy dose of Islamic legend and theology and readers of the “Potter” series may very well enjoy this fast paced adventure. More than this, though, it is a commentary on the changing face of the Arab world as well as a commentary on the free flow of information and how information can be just as useful - or destructive - weapon depending on who controls the flow of information. Recommended.