The Bird King
In a long-forgotten emirate full of decadence, religion, and holy war, one question is asked: what is love?
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel, Alif the Unseen) is like walking through a beautiful, intricately-woven dreamscape. With nightmares mixed in. Wilson's second full-length novel mixes historical fiction, religion, myth, fantasy, and magical realism in a wonderfully delicate way. As an agnostic, sometimes I was left wondering if the nightmare creatures were the shape-shifting trickster djinn or the fanatical human Inquisitors.
Set in the 1400s, when the Spanish Inquisition was in full force and the Empire of Grenada was about to fall, the book follows the escape and dangerous journey of two best friends. Fatima is the last slave concubine of her race, and Hassan is a gay cartographer with the ability to draw maps for places he has never seen, thereby creating magical doorways. They are chased across the land by the Spanish Inquisition because Hassan's "sorcery" is a big no-no with the Catholic church. Yes, this means an epic expedition ensues.
The Bird King is jam-packed with history and religion. Wilson has done her due diligence when researching. The images she conjures are rich and elaborate and drew me in. I’m not normally a historical fiction reader, but I really enjoyed her writing style. There are multiple intricate moments where both Muslim and Catholic religions are overlapped, praised, and questioned. Neither is showcased as predominantly good or evil, and it's so refreshing. Every painstakingly developed character has their moments to expound on their faith or question it. It makes for extensive introspection for our main character, Fatima.
For example, during her journey, we see Fatima wonder whether she’s faithless. As a slave, she’s never been in control of her own life or had the freedom to formulate – let alone express – her own opinions. The journey she takes with Hassan gives her the space to consider how she really feels, who and what she believes in, and what’s important to her. Hassan, on the other hand, has the most steadfast faith of all the characters in the entire book. Regardless of the hardships and questions he experiences as a gay, map-making sorcerer, he always stays true to his beliefs. His faith in his God, and in his magical gift, is unwavering.
While I’m on the topic of characters, I also want to give a little shout out to the djinn, Vikram, the slightly unwilling guide-cum-guardian to Fatima. His sass stole my heart. Wilson needs a medal for her beautifully ambiguous writing of his character. His dialogue is witty and candid, and his visage is a juxtaposition of ever-shifting beauty and beast. I would often find him confusing, only to realize the wisdom he had just imparted. He’s so very, very clever.
There is a lot going on here and I must admit there were moments where The Bird King was a bit of a trek. It did feel very slow for the middle portion of the story, bogged down by a few too many descriptions of the rough land they had to traverse and what food they ate it. However, I most definitely felt it was worth the effort in the end. I was back to being fully engaged once I hit the last quarter of the book. (An important note: There are several sex scenes and much matter-of-fact discussion about sex throughout the book. There is also physical assault and a failed attempted rape, when members of the Inquisition capture and question Hassan and Fatima, so look out for those around chapter 15.)
I personally found the most intriguing aspect of the story to be the discussion of love while actively downplaying romantic love. So many times in other stories, our heroes are aided in finally finding themselves via the help of their love interest. However, the focus of this story is platonic love. Loving yourself, your best friend, your God if you believe in one, and attempting to treat those around you with love. I feel we could all benefit from being a little kinder to those around us. As The Bird King demonstrates, sometimes comradeship can spring from the unlikeliest places.