One day, not too long ago, I received in my mailbox an advanced-reader copy of G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King. I was a bit familiar with Wilson as the writer behind the Ms. Marvel series, but I had never read any of her work. I was in for an amazing surprise. What struck me first was the beautiful cover. I’m a sucker for cover art, and if I had the coin, I would ask a friendly neighborhood tattoo artist to riff off of the artwork and create a lovely upper arm piece. It sat on my desk for a while as I finished a few books that were in my to-be-read pile and finally I started reading in my bathtub, trying to warm up from a second, or third winter weekend that left me ready to escape to 15th century Spain, or more specifically Granada just before the brutal engines of the Inquisition gripped the Iberian peninsula.
The novel opens with Fatima and Hassan going about their sheltered lives in the comforts of Alhambra. The war with Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile is talked about, but has not yet hit the gilded cage Fatima and Hassan occupy. Fatima has been born and raised in the castle, first as a servant to Sultan Abu Abdullah’s acerbic mother, Lady Aisha, who serves as both mentor and mother to her, and then as concubine as she transitions from blustery child to strong-willed woman. Aisha has taught Fatima to read in three languages and given her free reign of her royal library, fostering an intellect and tongue that is perhaps more devastating than Fatima’s famed, Circassian, beauty.
Hassan is the ginger-haired map maker with a deeply spiritual devotion to his Muslim faith. He is also a homosexual who drinks too much wine and can birth new places simply by drawing them into reality. His sexuality allows for others to overlook his continued contact with Fatima after she becomes the Sultan’s concubine, and his talents as a miracle map-maker give him a protected status within the castle. Both are restless in their their privileged subservience that allows earthly delights such as silks and full bellies, but neither have autonomy or freedom. Fatima’s body is not her own, and Hassan is merely tolerated, his great gift protecting him from the persecution of the smaller minds in the court. They both escape through stories they create surrounding the search for the Bird King, a tale borrowed from an incomplete text in Lady Aisha’s library, The Conference of Birds. The birds in this story are tired of forever quarreling and decide to seek out the Bird King who is said to reside on the island of Qaf. Lady Aisha’s book ends there, and Fatima and Hassan continue to tell stories of different birds, never landing on an ending.
Enter Luz—a golden haired emissary of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who wiles her way into the affections of Fatima. Cunning, and ruthless, Luz is a villain whose charisma and charm mask her darker task as an instrument of the Inquisition. In a careless encounter, Hassan’s gift is uncovered, and seen by Luz as an act of sorcery. An act that must be extracted and understood through torture. Fatima discovers his fate and is determined to save the only man who has every truly loved her for her, and the action of the story starts. I hate to give away much more than this, but their journey encompasses bridges between worlds with the help of a jinn, and a voyage on a stolen caravel to escape Luz’s pursuit.
World building is probably the main reason I’m drawn to fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. Wilson builds the world of 15th century Spain with cinematic sensory descriptions. Her use of language will inspire you to languish in her prose; her plot and character development will drive you to read faster and faster until you can trust Fatima and Hassan are out of harm’s way. The Bird King will keep you up at night, frantically turning pages, and it will stick to your bones with Wilson’s wise and graceful explorations of love, spirituality, and storytelling.
-Kristin Soper is an Events Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.