by G. Willow Wilson
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.
Hassan has a secret--he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?
As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.
This is a difficult bird (ha!) to categorize – it’s a lyrically written historical fantasy, set during the last days of Muslim Iberia and in a lot of ways it’s more about the ideas than the plot. I’m a firm believer that each reader’s relationship with a book is highly personal and may diverge strongly with what the author intended, and this is certainly one of those books. The author is Muslim and this book is steeped in Islamic folklore, so considering that I’m Christian, I’m pretty sure I’ve missed large amounts of meaning, but I still found it fascinatingly deep.
“I can get us to Qaf,” he said. “I can get us to the isle of the Bird King. That’s where we should go. That’s where we’ll be safe.”
Fatima closed her eyes and attempted to muster her self-restraint.
“It’s a game, Hassan,” she said as gently as she could. “We were bored children shut up in a crumbling palace, so we made it up. Bit by bit. We made up a story.”
“But that’s just it,” said Hassan, leaning toward her. “What if our stories are like my maps? What is a story but the map of an idea? There is a secret in the poem of Al Attar—we made it into a joke because joking felt better than despairing. But perhaps that is the secret. The Bird King is real, and we are his subjects.”
Fatima is a concubine of the last sultan in Iberia, and for her whole life the sultanate has been at war with Spain and losing. So it’s perhaps no great surprise when Spanish envoys arrive to negotiate their surrender – but it is an unpleasant surprise when the sultan agrees to give up her best friend, Hassan, the palace mapmaker, accused of being a sorcerer by the Inquisition. Hassan has the ability to draw maps of places he’s never seen, and bend space in interesting ways with the maps he draws, something that he’s put to use many times to give Fatima a view outside of the confines of the palace harem. Left with no other options, Fatima and Hassan escape the palace by night with the help of a jinn. But with everything around them now belonging to Spain, where can they hope to go? By either madness or genius, Hassan draws a map to the mythical island of Qaf, the supposed homeland of the king of the birds according to a partial poem that’s become a sort of touchstone to both Fatima and Hassan. Can such a place exist? Can they find it? And would a runaway concubine and a magical mapmaker even be welcome there?
“No one offers me peace or safety except to keep me for themselves,” she said aloud. “No one reaches out to me except to take what little I have.”
First off – yes, the pacing is slow, and if you were to sum up the plot it’s basically: Fatima and Hassan escape, they almost get captured, they escape, almost get captured again, rinse, repeat. However, it’s not so much what’s happening as how Fatima is reacting to it, how she grows and changes from the girl who’s never been outside the palace walls, a caged bird, to a woman in charge of her own destiny. The book starts off mostly reading as historical fiction and then, one magic map or jinn or eldritch creature at a time, starts becoming more fantastical until it’s pretty solidly a fantasy at the end. Ms. Wilson has an incredible skill with words, as well, and the lyrical quality lends to the fairy tale-feel as well. Fatima is an interesting character – a pampered slave who completely lacks the skill to dissemble, but still possesses a deep-seated sense of righteousness and courage.
“No one can choose who God loves, or change who God loves,” said Vikram. “Not even the Inquisition.”
Considering it stars two Muslim characters who are pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, it’s no surprise that religion and the conflict between Islam and Christianity is a major (and timely) topic. And while you’d expect the Muslims to come out of it much shinier than the Catholics, given that it’s from Fatima’s point of view, the strengths and weaknesses of each religion are deftly explored. It’s no surprise that so much of it, for our characters, boils down to “divisions used by those ‘above’ us to grind down those ‘below.'” While this is something that Fatima has lived all her life, it’s demoralizing to find it still true outside the palace walls as a free woman, and to realize that the same applies even to Hassan as a gay man with a strange talent. At one point, the jinn tells Fatima, paraphrased, “fear only God” and, to me, that was the main takeaway of the book – regimes and religions may change, but, in the end, it’s God who matters, and the best a person can do is live how they think God would intend them to.
“I do know how the poem ends,” he said. “But your poem, the one you and Hassan have been telling to one another, has diverged from it so profoundly that it doesn’t matter. There is no longer any real poem, or rather, one is now as real as the other.”
“There is so a real poem,” said Fatima, annoyed. “The real Conference of the Birds was written by someone, by a real person. He had certain intentions. I want to know what they were. He wrote the poem for a reason, and the reason matters.”
“Does it?” Vikram stretched his toes, revealing a row of claws as black as obsidian. “Once a story leaves the hands of its author, it belongs to the reader. And the reader may see any number of things, conflicting things, contradictory things. The author goes silent. If what he intended mattered so very much, there would be no need for inquisitions and schisms and wars. But he is silent, silent. The author of the poem is silent, the author of the world is silent. We are left with no intentions but our own.”
There’s a lot else to unpack – Fatima’s relationship with the sultan’s mother, who’s been her strongest maternal figure in her life, though still her owner; the identity of the mythical island – is it Muslim Qaf or Catholic Antillia?; her relationship with Hassan. Oh, and Luz! Luz is a fantastic villain, and I was absolutely tickled pink that the female heroine was balanced by a female villain. While I’m certainly no Islamic scholar, I found the choice of names interesting. The historical Fatima (daughter of the prophet Muhammed) is frequently given the title “Zahra,” which means “shining,” and to have this Fatima face off against someone whose name means “light” was certainly an intentional choice on Ms. Wilson’s part. Fatima’s fascination with Luz – even when she knows that fascination is harmful – was simultaneously nerve-wracking and enthralling. She’s a complicated, complex creation and wanting to see her and Fatima interact again was what kept me reading through the first half of the book. Vikram, the jinn, was also a fascinating character. Utterly inhuman, tricksy, and motivated by his own difficult to understand desires, he still manages to distill many of the book’s lessons and themes down for Fatima and Hassan.
I think, in the end, the strength of the book was also its weakest point for me. I found the ending somewhat unsatisfactory, and closed the book still trying to figure out what exactly the author meant to say – as Vikram says above, the reader is “left with no intentions but our own.” It’s definitely a novel feeling, considering how most books are much more straightforward, written with the intent to make a reader feel a certain way, think a certain way, but it’s not particularly comfortable. Whatever else can be said, I will definitely be thinking about this book for a very long time.
Overall, this is a slow-paced historical fantasy, well-written and big on the ideas. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for something unique and thought-provoking!