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#CBR7 Review #2 – Cairo

CairoTarget: G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo.  Art by M.K. Perker

Profile: Modern Fantasy, Urban, Middle Eastern, Graphic Novel

After Action Report:

Cairo is, in many ways, a prototype for G. Willow Wilson’s later novel, Alif the Unseen.  They are stories of clashing cultures. Both the complex internal clash between Islamic hardliners and the culturally diverse youth of the Middle East, and the more external, if no less complex conflict between encroaching western culture and the entrenched lifestyles of Muslims.  By necessity, Cairo is more spare, crashing through a much simpler plot at breakneck pace, but it manages to hit the same powerful notes that Alif does.

The comic starts as the story of Ashraf, an Egyptian drug smuggler who makes regular runs across the border into Israel.  On one such run, he wrecks his car on a stoned camel (exactly as funny as it sounds), loses his shipment and ends up stealing a hookah from his employer to make some fast cash.  But the hookah is home to a jinn, Shams, a beneficent creature who owns a box that could give control of the entire Middle East to anyone who possesses it.

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#CBR5 Maneuver #11 – Alif the Unseen

Alif the UnseenTarget: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen

Profile: Modern Fantasy, Religion

Summary: From the dust jacket, “The Unseen:1: anonymity, a space or state of being occupied in order to commit mischief; 2: That which cannot be perceived by human eyes; 3: an unimaginable new dimension of power waiting for someone to grasp it…

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients–dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups–from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble.  He goes by Alif–the first letter of the Arabic alphabet.  The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his compter has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line.

It turns out that 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.

After Action Report:

Alif the Unseen is honestly one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory.  It practically sparkles with fresh ideas and invigorating prose.  Like Throne of the Crescent Moon, I picked up Alif on the recommendation of io9.com’s best speculative fiction of 2012 list, and out of a desire to read more non-Eurocentric fantasy.  But the two books shouldn’t even be compared.  Alif is on a completely different level of fiction, the same level occupied by giants like China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaimen’s American Gods, or perhaps more saliently, his Anansi Boys.

The novel is also a triumph of multiculturalism.  The author, G. Willow Wilson, an American journalist who converted to Islam and moved to Cairo where she wrote for a number of magazines and newspapers, has written a magnificent window into contemporary Middle Eastern culture, and one that stand surprisingly accessible to readers who might not know anything about the history or culture of this incredibly interesting and diverse region.  Where Saladin Ahmed utterly failed to connect with the richness of Arabian and Islamic mythology in his Crescent Moon, Wilson has succeeded in stunning fashion.

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