Publisher: Grove Press
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.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Firstly, I want to warn readers that the pacing for this book is incredibly slow. Despite this book following Fatima and Hassan’s escape from the sultan’s Palace and the Spanish Inquisition, this book felt more character driven than plot driven. It takes a little while for the plot to pick up and I was tempted early on to put this book down but I’m certainly glad I held through. To make up for the pacing, G. Willow Wilson’s prose is a delight to read. From Fatima’s sun-filled days as the Sultan’s only concubine to the visceral experience of eating a rabbit raw, Wilson’s writing style and language helps truly helps bring this book alive.
Another strong point for this book is in the worldbuilding. The Bird King takes place in the late 1400s, just as the Emirate of Granada will fall to the Spanish. I have no knowledge of this time period and can make no statement of the book’s historical accuracy. However, I can say that this book does a fantastic job in giving you just enough information to paint a mental picture of the situation without turning into a history book. More interestingly, this history we learn is presented from Fatima’s point of view with biases very cleverly written in.
On paper, the plot is very simple. Granada, about to fall with Castille, treats their terms of surrender with a delegation visiting the Sultan’s palace. Fatima, who had unknowingly introduced the Castillan delegation to her friend and palace mapmaker Hassan, discovers Hassan’s capture is included in those terms and makes a last minute decision to escape with him. The rest of the book follows their journey to freedom as they run from the Castillan search party dogging their every step. What confused me later on were some of the decisions the two of them made as they ran, especially those related to the Bird King, which compounded with other decisions until I’d stopped trying to understand their decision making process and just follow along for the ride.
Of course, that is not a knock on the characters themselves. Fatima and Hassan are both incredibly well fleshed out characters and it was a delight to read about their journey, both physically and emotionally. Fatima especially, grows from headstrong but naive palace concubine to a brave independent woman willing to sacrifice herself for Hassan’s wellbeing. Hassan, the palace’s gay mapmaker targeted by the Castillans as a sorcerer for his magical map skills, plays an excellent foil to Fatima’s determined headstrong nature. Together, the two of them have one of my favorite M/F platonic friendships I’ve ever read.
I did have two small complaints with this book. Firstly, I thought the ending dragged on for too long. It’s hard to say anything without spoiling the entire book, but I thought the last 20% felt superfluous and book could have ended fine the moment one particular event happened and that everything that happened after felt like the book trying to overexplain events. Secondly, I never really had a good grasp of Hassan’s map powers. The maps he draws are always perfect and he can sometimes make doors to other places with them, but the details and limitations felt somewhat arbitrary and happened as the plot required them to
Overall, I rate this book a 4/5. I thought the ending dragged on for too long and the pacing was a little too slow for my tastes, but this book was an otherwise beautiful written literary tale of a young woman and her friend searching for freedom.
/r/Fantasy Bingo 2018-2019 Squares
- Non-Western Setting
- Hopeful Spec Fic
- Historical Fantasy/Alternate History
- Fewer than 2500 GoodReads Rating (12 March 2019)
- Stand Alone Fantasy Novel
- LGBTQ+ Database