Fatima is a concubine in the luxurious confines of the Alhambra. Born into captivity, she has never left the Alhambra. She lives in luxury, a favourite of the sultan, but outside the palace confines, the sultan’s power is coming to an end as Spain is unified under Isabel and Ferdinand. Fatima’s best friend is the mapmaker Hassan, an unassuming young man who can draw maps that create places that weren’t there before. When emissaries from Spain visit the Alhambra and Hassan’s abilities are understood by them he is deemed a sorcerer and so Hassan and Fatima flee from the Alhambra, seeking the mythical King of Birds from a poem which they have never read the end of.
The first part of The Bird King was very engaging. We are taken into the heart of the Alhambra, itself a rather mythic place, and into a section of history I knew very little about. What we know now as the country of Spain was many different, smaller kingdoms and the region of the Alhambra was a final holdout of Muslim real in a rapidly Catholic area. Some brief research tells me that the Alhambra is unique for many reasons, not least because it features Islamic art and architecture separate from the influences of the Middle East. The Spanish Catholic forces of that time are, of course, famous for the Spanish Inquisition, which features heavily in this story as Fatima and Hassan try to escape a woman named Luz who believes herself to be on a holy mission to save the world from hell.
The Alhambra under the sultan is depicted as a somewhat idyllic place. In the harem, Fatima enjoys all the luxuries of the time and knows nothing but opulence. She is a favourite of the sultan and holds some power as such. She is also favoured by the sultan’s mother, Queen Aisha. At the same time, Fatima is a slave, unable to make her own choices or live her own life, never able to leave the walls of the palace. Her friendship with Hassan is made extra precious by the fact that it is the only thing she herself has chosen.
Hassan’s abilities are never fully explored. Neither he nor anyone else knows how he has them or how they work, they are simply accepted by the sultan and everyone else. Along with his seemingly magical powers, Hassan is a gay man and this too is largely accepted by everyone around him. Without knowing more about the historical place, I found myself skeptical of these two things. Both of these traits of Hassan’s identify him as someone at risk under the Spanish Inquisition but I couldn’t help but feel that Hassan was a man who would be in danger under any religious authority of the time, including Islam. The depiction of the Alhambra as a place accepting of all peoples felt more fantastical than Hassan’s mapmaking.
The book is a fantasy, no doubt about that. When Fatima and Hassan escape Luz and leave the Alhambra, setting out the sea and the mythic island of the Bird King, they are accompanied by a jinn. Luz seems spurred and supported by unknown powers of her own. A good chunk of the plot in the middle of the book consists of close encounters and near escapes for our heroes, which gets a little tedious, but when they finally do make it somewhere past the sea, the story returns even more strongly to the realm of fantasy.
The end, in fact, felt rather muddled. There is something in there that is trying to be a statement about paradise, about faith, and love and freedom but Wilson never quite makes her message clear. Fatima is a strong and engaging character, as powerful as a woman of her time and station can be but vulnerable too so that it was easy to care for her. The relationship at the heart of the novel is her friendship with Hassan which was a nice change of pace from the more typical romantic relationships we see in so many stories.
While I’m certainly not against fantasy and fantastical elements, I felt that The Bird King worked best when it was a historical novel, delving into a part of real history that remains foreign to many Western readers. What we end up with here felt almost like two stories, mashed together, both with strong elements but not quite working in sync.