The Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Expected Publication March 12, 2019 by Grove Press
In the West, we think of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain as a pair of glorious figures riding to victory in the 1480s, but we rarely think about the people they conquered. In The Bird King, a historical fantasy novel, G. Willow Wilson tells the story of Fatima, a beautiful concubine of the last sultan of Grenada and her friend Hassan, a mapmaker blessed with the ability to draw maps of places he has never seen and to remake reality with the maps he draws. When an emissary from the oncoming Catholic forces meets with the Sultan to discuss terms of surrender, Fatima unwittingly reveals Hassan’s secrets to the nascent Inquisition, who views such powers as devilish sorcery. Faced with the likelihood of torture and death, Fatima and Hassan escape from the palace, and with the help of a jinn, a spirit from beyond this world, they flee across a threatening land in search of safety.
“‘But Hassan isn’t a holy man,” said Fatima…
…”‘Neither are most miracle workers,’ said Vikram. ‘Most are ordinary men and women with all the usual flaws and hypocrisies. People would rather call them witches and burn them than acknowledge that miracles are bestowed upon the world with glorious, unfathomable generosity, because people are idiots.'”
Fatima and Hassan are far from the plucky young heroes that usually appear in fantasy novels, however. They have spent years living in a palace, coddled and protected, but treated as little more than useful pets- useful and entertaining in their turn, but forgotten when out of sight. They are utterly unprepared for the world beyond the palace walls and are forced to rely upon Vikram, a surly jinn who made a promise to guard them until they reach the port. But Vikram cannot protect them from everything. Their misadventures force them to face the reality of the world, even as they bicker and push each other to their limits. Our heroes aren’t plucky and sarcastic in the face of overwhelming odds. They’re terrified.
What helps them keep their spirits up through their journey is a made-up game they have played since childhood. Years ago, the sultan’s mother bought part of a long Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds. It is a real poem written in the 1200s by Farid ud-Din Attar, where a group of birds goes in search of their king, crossing frightening lands and falling prey to their own faults as they fly into the unknown. Because Fatima and Hassan have only ever read the first part of the poem, they have spent years making up their own endings to the story, and continue to do so during their flight. As the miles pass and their situation becomes direr, their old game begins to have real-world consequences they did not expect.
The inclusion of The Conference of the Birds is more than just a story element. As an English fantasist might incorporate motifs from Arthurian legend or Beowulf into their story, so Wilson incorporates themes from Attar’s great work into the fabric of The Bird King’s overarching narrative. In the poem, the various birds have flaws that correspond to human weakness. As the poetic birds must overcome their own weaknesses to find their king, so Fatima and Hassan must overcome their own flaws and build up their faith in each other- and their story- to have a chance of finding sanctuary.
I know of few fantasy novels that deal with religion the way that Wilson has in The Bird King. Rather than falling into the binary traps of Good vs Evil, Christian vs Muslim, East vs West, or Faithful vs Faithless, The Bird King sees the flaws in all humanity. Though it contains meditations on faith and sin, it never strays into preachy territory and maintains the right balance as it philosophizes on these heavy topics.
That’s not to say that The Bird King is a heavy, ponderous tome. Though it is steeped in Islamic lore and poetry, it remains light on its feet, blending dry humor and moments of action at just the right time to tell a rich story of a world that never quite was, while showing us a world that could be, if we were brave enough to face our own flaws.
“And though saying so shocked her, she knew it to be true. One could love many people. The heart was not a divided thing.”
Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Press for providing me with a free ebook in exhange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way. The quotations were pulled from the ARC, and may not reflect exactly what appears in the finished version.