“I’d like to thank the publisher for providing me with an ARC in return of an honest review.”
From award-winning author G. Willow Wilson, The Bird King is an epic journey set during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel Alif the Unseen was an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and it established her as a vital American Muslim literary voice. Now she delivers The Bird King, a stunning new novel that tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of Granada, the last emirate of Muslim Spain, 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.
I am at a loss of words.
This is the kind of writing that deserves all the awards in the world. There were so many lines and passages that made me stop and just soak the words in. I was awed by the details and nuances of the writing. The research that went into this must be applauded.
Before I go into the story, I’d like to take some time to commend the author for giving us a glimpse of what the Islamic empires were indeed like back in the day. There’s a lot of misconception about Islam in the present time. And a lot of that is owed to the fact that it’s linked with all things conservative and unprogressive, in many spheres. But back in the days, the Islamic empires were known for their richness in cultures and tolerance, be it in the Middle east, West or the Indian Sub-continent. I could go into details about how Muslims at large were far more progressive and accepting back then than they are now, but this is not the post for that. I’d just like to applaud Wilson for showcasing a culture the details of which have faded over time.
I was overcome with sadness as I read through the beginning. We start with an empire that is about to be lost. Thinking of the realness and the actuality of that part of the story made me melancholic as reading about history generally does. After all, there’s always someone that loses in history. Never a happy thing to read about.
“Let me tell you something important. The real struggle on this earth is not between those who want peace and those who want war. It’s between those who want peace and those who want justice. If justice is what you want, then you may often be right, but you will rarely be happy.”
I love that although this book is a high fantasy, the backdrop is a real historical event. It makes me appreciate the nuances even more. The author blends historical fiction with high magical fantasy in an effortless manner.
There is a wonderful cast of characters each of which had richly stood on its own. But it was Fatima and Hassan who were the heart of the book.
Fatima is a not a character made of goodness. She’s selfish and spoiled. There’s vanity in her. But what I loved about her were her vulnerabilities. Beneath it all, she is a character that just wanted to be loved. The concept of consent that played out in her mind was beautiful to see. The part where she says that she would have perhaps fallen in love with the Sultan if she could have the freedom to initiate her affection, spoke volumes.
“Yes, you were taught to waste your anger. It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous. If you want to live, you must learn to use your anger for your own benefit, not the benefit of those who would turn it against you.”
Hassan is the palace mapmaker. From the very first scene, I felt so much affection and adoration for him. He had this naivete that was unexpected. His and Fatima’s friendship is EVERYTHING. And the author rightfully explores it compellingly.
Theirs is a love story without any romance. The love these two have for each other is complex and inexplicable. Fatima feels the closest to him because he is the only one who doesn’t desire her. He’s the sodomite between the two, but he’s also the one with more faith than Fatima. They have a complicated relationship because there is jealousy and bitterness along with affection and love with no happy resolution in sight. This book is the journey of these two to make a story for themselves, for once, that’s not made up.
“What if our stories are like my maps? What is a story but the map of an idea?”
This was a fantasy story but that was by no means the main focus of the book. Amidst all the actions and adventure, the themes that play out are characters’ search for love, happiness and freedom. The character growth and evolution that we witness is the real winner for me.
“Happiness, she decided, came only in pauses, neither regularly nor predictably.”
The writer excels in world-building and is outstanding in her prose. Because of that, the pace might feel uneven at places, but I didn’t mind it. The ending was bittersweet and I kinda ended up wanting more. But I guess this isn’t a book that can be tied neatly with a bow. The feelings it invoked in me deserve as many stars as I can give it.
My Rating: ★★★★★