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?
As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.
A man who can draw maps that bend the shape of reality is an intriguing premise. Now station that man in the year 1491 during the Granada War in the palace of the last Sultan, the Alhambra, which is under siege from the Spanish forces, and you have got a story with tremendous potential. Regrettably, Wilson falls short of delivering a mind-blowing novel.
Let me first highlight the things I enjoyed. Wilson’s luminous prose stands out in The Bird King. After a long time, I have come across a book where I highlighted several paragraphs of sheer beauty. If only I could print every one of those paragraphs and frame it on my bedroom wall. Sample these, for instance,
Further, Wilson has etched out relatable characters. Fatima, the royal concubine, who has never set foot out of the palace, risks the safety and comfort of its walls to save her only friend, Hassan. Forced to reconsider her decision at every step, she remains loyal to her friend and emerges as a natural-born leader. Hassan, too, transforms into a brave young man from a diffident fellow.
The book delivers a profound message – almost all religions have the same belief but all of us are squabbling over petty things.
However, elegant prose and believable characters don’t maketh a good story.
Wilson has congruently mixed fantasy elements such as jinns and Hassan’s reality-altering powers to historical facts. But the pace is slow. It’s only during the chase sequences the pace quickens which is followed by long periods of slumps. Every time I put down the book; I didn’t feel any urge to pick it up again. Moreover, I am ambivalent about the ending. Lastly, you need to have a pretty good knowledge of European history (I didn’t!) to understand the conflicts in this story.
The Bird King is recommended for literary historical fantasy fans. There are graphic descriptions of gutting a rabbit and an almost rape scene as well, so tread with caution.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me a free eARC. I opted to provide an honest review.
Summary copied from Goodreads
Have you read The Bird King? Have you read any books from the historical fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments section below.