Sometimes, the best things happen to exactly the right people. Like when I opened the New York Times this morning to find a review of G. Willow Wilson’s new novel, Alif the Unseen, on the front page of the Arts section. Yes, she lives in Seattle (when not in Egypt), and yes she’s a friend, and yes I’d be raving about this novel even if I’d never met her and she lived in Timbuktu.
I was waiting to write about it until the official publication date, July 3, but now that Janet Maslin’s beaten me to it, I’m free to enthuse. Because Ms Maslin only gets the half of it.
In a peculiar kind of shorthand, Maslin runs straight to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels as her comparison. But that’s ignores how sophisticated this novel really is. She’d have done better to think of Phillip Putnam’s The Golden Compass, then of Phillip K. Dick, then of…
But no, comparisons won’t do it. Take a close look at the cover — the computer board inside the Kufic-style name — and you’ll see instantly that Alif the Unseen is unique: a totally entrancing digital-age novel that combines computer hackers with genies, the serious reality of the Arab spring with the fantasy of A Thousand and One Nights, mathematical philosophy with accidental theology, myth with playfulness. In fact what’s stunning about it is how many levels it works on.
So I won’t even try to tell you what the novel’s “about.” That’d only be to turn magic into plodding summary. There’s a solid touch of genius in Willow Wilson’s genie world, and the only way to get it is to read it. Enjoy!