Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

The Bird King – G. Willow Wilson (Grove Press, 2019)

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.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson”

    1. That’s definitely the term for this book! The historical parts were accurate but with magic. It’s not something I’ve come across in many books but I really liked that aspect.

  1. The idea of strictly platonic friendship between a man and woman as the basis for a book appeals to me because we are so often told how rare these are. Still, too bad about the mishmash of intentions, that always confuses me as a reader. What made you pick up this book in the first place?

    1. Yes, I liked that aspect too! It’s rare for platonic love to be portrayed this way and it’s very refreshing. I read a review of this one that intrigued me.

  2. The historical elements sound interesting – I’d like to know more about the Moorish settlement in Spain. But I fear the fantasy elements wouldn’t work for me at all. And I agree with you about it being doubtful if being gay would be any more acceptable under Islam than under Christianity at that time, although I don’t know for sure.

    1. I really enjoyed the glimpse into that Moorish history in Spain and it had me looking up more information because I know so little about that period/spot in history. I didn’t mind the fantasy but I knew about it going in so it wasn’t surprising. And, yes, there’s this whole scene where one of the characters discusses how much more is allowed under the rule of the sultan and how their society is so permissive but I’m not sure how accurate that is. He is comparing it to the Catholic rulers and the Spanish Inquisition though so almost any other society could seem more permissive than that!

    2. Haha, yes, the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t much noted for the fun element, was it? 😉 I’d like to know more about the Moorish period too – once I’ve got the Spanish Civil War sorted in my mind, I might work backwards through Spanish history…

  3. Great review! I’ve been curious about this one, so it’s good to get a balanced take. I’m definitely intrigued by the prospect of learning a bit of history through the read so am glad to see that’s a solid part of the novel. Also nice to know there’s a friendship at the core rather than a romance! It seems there’s still quite a bit to appreciate here even if it doesn’t quite all come together perfectly, so I’ll probably still give it a go at some point when the time is right.

    1. Friendship being at the core of a novel rather than a romance is so rare but so lovely to read about. I guess it meant that there was no tension surrounding “will they? won’t they?” but the book had plenty of other tension so that never felt lacking. Mostly this was a fun read and had some unique factors so even though it wasn’t a perfect book, I’m glad I read it and can happily recommend it!

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