Book: “The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson
Publishing Info: Grove Press, March 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Bookish First!
Book Description: Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.
Hassan has a secret–he can draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?
Review: I read an excerpt of this on Bookish First and found myself immediately connecting to the beautiful writing that was popping on the page. I placed my request was thrilled when I received a copy. While it was a slower read, ultimately, than I had been expecting, that same strength in writing and the unexpected depth of thought given to the historical events, religious interactions, and cultures of the time period ultimately drew me in.
Fatima and her friend Hassan have built a quiet life for themselves in the circumstances they have found themselves in: she a concubine to the sultan and he a mapmaker. But Hassan is much more than your ordinary mapmaker and possess the incredible gift of not only drawing up intricate maps of the places he’s never been, but also, through these maps, interrupting the weave of reality itself. But when Hassan suddenly falls under the eyes of those who would see his gift as more of a threat than a blessing, he and Fatima must go on the run, seeking out a mystical island as their one port of harbor for a safe life going forward.
I haven’t read too many books set in this time period or within these combinations of cultures. The book is tackling a lot: the persecution under the Spanish Inquisition, the clashes between religious forces taking place in that time, plus a healthy dose of magic realism to differentiate it from a purely historical fiction work. But I think it is this last portion, the interweaving of the fantastical elements that really made this book sing for me. There are a lot of big ideas being tossed around throughout the story, but many of these are explored from a bit of an angle, with the author approaching them almost from the side, using fairytale-like elements to draw readers into a deceptively complicated, real-world issue. Metaphor and stylized writing are also used to great effect to, again, almost backwards-walk readers into topics that can get pretty dicey pretty quickly. Of course, I’m always going to love anything that reads like a fairytale, but I appreciate it all the more when an author is able to use this writing style to get at deeper topics that can often be challenging to get across.
I also very much liked the two main characters in Fatima and Hassan. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel about Fatima, but as the story progressed, I found myself becoming more and more invested in their platonic friendship and love. It’s a rare read to find a story that focuses on this type of strong relationship, one that isn’t based on romantic love (Hassan is gay, another factor that leads to his persecution), but that still highlights the extent to which each party will go for the other. The fact that they aren’t romantically involved never feels like it detracts from what they would do for each other, and, instead, in some ways it feels that their bond is even stronger by being freed from that element. It’s a unique relationship to see explored so thoroughly in this type of book.
I will say, however, that the story is pretty slow going. It takes quite a bit for them to even get started on their journey, and then once they do, it doesn’t speed up much. There’s a lot of travel, camping, small moments of action, and then more travel and camping. The writing was still captivating, which was enough to get me through these slower elements, but I can see how this could be off-putting to many readers, especially ones who may not be as interested in the greater themes being explored at the heart of the story. I do think more could have been done to tighten up this middle portion of the book, as the fact that it ultimately worked for me seems to speak more to my own preference than to the general quality of the story structure.
Overall, “The Bird King” was a surprisingly deep and satisfying read for me. There were, however, some stumbling blocks with the pacing and writing speed, which is what knocks it back a few points for me. It’s a lengthy story, and while it is trying to cover a lot of different things, I do think it could have been tightened up to increase its general appeal. If you like historical fiction blended with magical realism, especially dealing with a unique set of characters and a time period that isn’t often explored in this way, definitely give “The Bird King” a try. Just know that you might need to push through in the beginning before really getting to the good stuff.
Rating 7: A beautifully written story that covers a complicated time with two wonderful characters at its heart. Only lowered by being a bit too slow for my taste.
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