Read Alif the Unseen Online

Authors: G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen

 

Alif the Unseen

‘A Harry Potter-ish action-adventure romance that unfolds against the backdrop of the Arab Spring . . . Improbably charming . . . A bookload of wizardry and
glee’

New York Times

‘G. Willow Wilson has a deft hand with myth and with magic, and the kind of smart, honest writing mind that knits together and bridges cultures and people. You should
read what she writes.’

Neil Gaiman, author of
Stardust
and
American Gods

‘An ambitious, well-told and wonderful story.
Alif the Unseen
is one of those novels that has you rushing to find what else the author has written, and eagerly
anticipating what she’ll do next.’

Matt Ruff, author of
Fool on the Hill
and
The Mirage

‘G. Willow Wilson is an awesome talent. She made her own genre and rules over it. Magical, cinematic, pure storytelling. It’s nothing like anything. A brilliant
fiction debut.’

Michael Muhammad Knight, author of
The Taqwacores

‘Driven by a hot ionic charge between higher math and Arabian myth, G. Willow Wilson conjures up a tale of literary enchantment, political change, and religious
mystery.’

Gregory Maguire, author of
Wicked
and
Out of Oz


Alif the Unseen
is a terrific metaphysical thriller, impossible to put down. The fantastical world Alif inhabits – at once recognizable and surreal,
visible and invisible – is all the more fantastic for the meticulously detailed Koranic theology and Islamic mythology Wilson expertly reveals. A multicultural Harry Potter for the digital
age.’

Hooman Majd, author of
The Ayatollahs’ Democracy

‘A
Golden Compass
for the Arab Spring’

Steven Hall, author of
The Raw Shark Texts

‘Wonderful . . .
Alif the Unseen
reads as though Neal Stephenson and Saladin Ahmed had combined forces. The result is urban fantasy the way it really should
be.’

Tom Lloyd, author of the ‘Twilight Reign’ series

‘One of the most compelling narratives you’ll read this year,
Alif the Unseen
offers masterful insight into contemporary Middle Eastern societies whose
ongoing transformations are as unexpected and profound as those in our own. It is also a powerful reminder of how far fantasy has come since Tolkien.’

Jack Womack, author of
Random Acts of Senseless Violence

First published in the United States of America in 2012 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Ltd.

First published in hardback and trade paperback in Great Britain in 2012 by Corvus Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © G. Willow Wilson, 2012

The moral right of G. Willow Wilson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Hardback ISBN: 978 0 85789 566 0
Trade Paperback ISBN: 978 0 85789 567 7
E-book ISBN: 978 0 85789 568 4

Printed in Great Britain

Corvus Books
An Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
Ormond House
26–27 Boswell Street
London
WC1N 3JZ

www.atlantic-books.co.uk

For my daughter Maryam, born in the Arab Spring

The devotee recognizes in every divine Name the totality of Names.


Muhammad ibn Arabi,
Fusus al-Hikam

If the imagination of the dervish produced the incidents of these stories, his judgment brought them to the resemblance of truth, and his images are taken from things that are
real.


François Pétis de la Croix,
Les Mille et Un Jours

(The Thousand and One Days)

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter One

The Persian Gulf

Now

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 djinn-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 djinn-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 djinn-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:
She had heard him get down from the window. Sighing, Alif rapped twice on Robert Smith’s grainy black-and-white
knee.

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