With the release of The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson is, if possible, even busier now than when she was writing a monthly comic. She’s writing Wonder Woman for DC and Invisible Kingdom with Berger Books/Dark Horse Comics. And now she has a new book out, her first fiction novel since Alif the Unseen in 2012. The Bird King is a story about freedom, sacrifice, love without sex, and friendship above all else. I devoured it over Spring Break and can’t think of a better way to have spent my time.
The Bird King takes as its setting not just an empire fading, but an empire faded. This is a fantasy set in the last days of Muslim Granada, just at the moment that the Spanish collected themselves into a kingship and expelled the last of the Muslims who had been ruling the peninsula for 700 years. When I say “at the moment” I mean that seriously. Quickly after the start of the book, a Spanish delegation, complete with Inquisitors, is knocking at the door to the Alhambra asking when the last Sultan will be moving out. This knowledge that the Spanish are coming, and with them all of the pain, degradation, and bigotry that the late Medieval church can muster, gives the book an unexpected urgency. You know the end is not only here for this empire, the end is coming for empires everywhere.
Our main character, Fatima, is a prized slave and concubine to the Sultan. Her existence is simultaneously luxurious and tinged with all that she doesn’t have. She wears silks, but they are hand-me-downs from her owner, the Sultan’s powerful mother. She has gold jewelry, given to her the night when she was barely an adult and she first submitted to the Sultan. She has the company of Sultan, but never his ear. What she does have is a bad attitude and a friend in the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Hassan is many things, and none of them are orthodox. Because of his skills, he’s tolerated by the devout Muslims around him. Because of those same skills, he’s target number one when the Inquisition comes into the Alhambra, promising to end the siege of Granada if only Hassan is turned over. While the Sultan may be okay with it, Fatima is not. What starts as her most daring act of defiance yet, ends with the two of them on the run, with the most unexpected companions.
Like Wilson’s other book, The Bird King is filled with spirits and djinn, acting of their own accord to help or hinder the story. The moral ambiguity of the djinn is fascinating, especially in a universe like this where right and wrong runs on just a few axes: Muslim law or Christian law. In the same vein as the djinn is Hassan’s own power — he’s the only human in the book who is “fantastic” in the traditional sense. He can draw a map to anywhere. He draws a door, the door takes you where his map indicates. At the same time that Hassan is fundamentally ordinary in many ways, his power is limited only by his imagination. This powerful, but limited, ability takes the duo far, but never far enough.
The Conference of the Birds
A literary masterpiece from Persia, The Conference of the Birds unfolds within and alongside the main tale of The Bird King. Widely read in courts of sultans throughout the Muslim world (even now), The Conference of the Birds is an allegory about the weaknesses of people. The characters of the poem are different species of birds, banning together to look for their king. But for Fatima and Hassan, the allegory is fractured — locked in the Alhambra, they only had access to fragments of the epic, so they make up their own version. This retelling of a tale they don’t actually know the ending to, this breaking of history, stands as a firm if mythical center to the book. Meanwhile, the chaos of exodus and pursuit carries our protagonists out of their gilded cage and into the wider world.
Like The Conference of the Birds, the book has a diverse cast of characters, which illustrates the cosmopolitan, global nature of Muslim society at the time. Africans, Arabs, Turks, and all manner of others frequented the courts of the Sultan, and a few of them feature here. There are also varying expressions of sexuality, which gives the book a certain tactile realness I really enjoyed.
Hassan is without a doubt my favorite character. He is tender but never sappy, his genuine desires are well described and deeply felt. He isn’t flawless, but he grapples with his faults as well as anyone could. Fatima, the main character, was a harder sell for me. She starts the story as a pretty typical spunky but beautiful slave girl and takes a while to shed that archetype. But when she does, taking a leap of faith that frankly is only believable because they have the Inquisition at their heels, she blossoms. This transformation is what is so stirring about the book. Every character sheds their surface illusion to become their own magical (small m here) being. By the time I got to the end, the satisfaction of hard-earned freedom was palpable. I sat with the book open on my Kindle and stared at nothing for many minutes, just feeling the rush of it.
Satisfying to the End
This was a wonderful, satisfying journey through a part of history that I would love to see explored more in English-speaking fantasy. The characters are wonderfully described. There are moments of absolute terror — I’ve never imagined the mote in my brother’s eye so clearly — and of real humor. If you enjoyed Alif the Unseen or Ms. Marvel, picking this one up is a no-brainer. If you’re a fan of sharp female main characters, with a diverse supporting cast, I can recommend it. If unique settings that send you off to explore more history on your own are your fandom, you can’t do much better than this.
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