The Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Published March 2019
I have not yet read G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, Alif the Unseen, but I really want to now, because this one was beautiful. I really enjoyed this story, watching Fatima mature through her travels and change from the sheltered Sultan’s concubine/possession to become – well – what she becomes.
The Bird King is the story of Fatima, concubine, and Hassan, mapmaker, on the run from the Inquisition. They were both members of the house of the last Sultan in Iberia. When the Spanish (and the Inquisition) came to negotiate his surrender, one of their conditions was they wanted Hassan, because of the magic he used in his maps. Hassan has been Fatima’s only real friend; he’s the only man that wanted nothing from her, because he’s gay and unmoved by her beauty. His sexuality has been largely ignored by the court; his maps were too important to the war effort, so it was tolerated and just not spoken of. When Fatima discovers the Sultan intends to turn Hassan over, she runs away with him. She has some unexpected help in her journey, which, along with Hassan’s mapmaking, makes this a kind of magical realist historical fantasy novel. It’s not really alternate history, because nobody’s actions change how history plays out on a large scale.
I really enjoyed Wilson’s writing style, and while I’d already been interested in the description of Alif the Unseen, given how much I like her writing here, I really need to read that as well. I’m pretty sure it’s on my Kindle!
From the cover of The Bird King:
G. Willow Wilson delivers her long-awaited second novel set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula.
The Bird King tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of the sultan of Granada, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret – he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime, as well as entertained a bored Fatima, who has never step foot outside the palace walls. When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima is tasked with welcoming their women. She befriends one of the women, little realizing that she represents the Inquisition and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and therefore a threat to Christian rule.
In order to escape the Inquisition, Fatima and Hassan embark on an epic voyage across Spain in search of refuge on a mysterious, possible mythic island. With everything on the line, 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. A triumphant tour de force with shadings of Pullman, Gaiman, L’Engle, and C. S. Lewis, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King is a jubilant story of love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety.