Title: The Bird King
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: March 12th 2019
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.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review!
“THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BURN YOU ALIVE WILL FIND A REASON TO DO IT, WHETHER YOU PRETEND TO AGREE WITH THEM OR NOT.”
I think the main issue I had with The Bird King is that I didn’t really get it, but I kept persisting because the writing was so promising. Wilson’s words are just beautiful and lyrical and have this magical ability to transport you to the historical setting of the novel – during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula. The narrative is interspersed with mythology and elements of magical realism and I really enjoyed the way all of these aspects interacted with each other, particularly at the beginning of the book.
However, once Fatima and Hassan leave the Alhambra in search of safety, the book slowly loses its appeal. The plot is incredibly slow and, coupled with the fact that they aren’t really sure where they’re heading, it felt like there was no sense of direction and no driving force steering their vessel to its ultimate destination. That being said, the friendship and platonic love between Fatima and Hassan was one of the highlights of the novel, along with the presence of Vikram and Gwennec. Many of the interactions between these characters are so humorous that I actually found myself laughing out loud more than once.
Hassan’s talent for making maps of places he’s never seen and bending the shape of reality means they eventually settle with seeking refuge on Qaf – a fabled island that encompasses many different names in mythology. Antillia. Avalon. Shambhala. Atlantis. I really liked the symbolism of this. Ultimately, regardless of who you are, we all believe in the same thing but we just give them different names. If everyone could truly see that, I think we’d be one step closer to achieving peace and living in a better world.
Overall, The Bird King is a fascinating tale that blends historical fiction with elements of fantasy and magical realism. The plot is incredibly slow and almost non-existent but the world-building is rich, the characters are diverse and the writing is just as magical as Hassan and his maps.