Award winning author G. Willow Wilson has done it again with The Bird King.
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson is set in the year 1491, when the Spanish Inquisition came to Granada and seized the throne from the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula. The story follows Fatima and Hassan. Fatima is a Circassian concubine to Granada’s last sultan. Hassan is the official palace mapmaker, although his abilities go well beyond cartography.
Rather than mapping out places that he’s been or known, Hassan can draw maps of places that he’s never seen or heard about, and can even create his own realities. Unfortunately, the Christian Spanish rule sees that as more of a threat than a gift, which puts Hassan in a very dangerous position. With his life and freedom officially at stake, Hassan and Fatima are forced into an epic quest for safety and survival.
The journey that they embark on is beautiful both in its happenings and in its telling. Wilson spins the story with prose that will somehow simultaneously give you chills of recognition and make you question everything you thought you believed. She’s clearly an extraordinarily gifted writer with a lot to say about the world she’s living in. I guarantee that you’ll hold onto many of the insightful quotes and ideas from The Bird King long after you put the book down.
There are some great, fun and interesting characters (particularly Vikram the jinn) in The Bird King, alongside some beautiful and intriguing settings, both magical and historical. However, the greatest triumph and what ultimately make the story of The Bird King timeless is its underlying and reoccurring grand themes.
These themes and ideas are brought to the reader’s attention through the large cast of characters and the circumstances that they find themselves in, but they also seem to stand on their own as the highlight of the book. No matter what characters were in focus or what segment of their journey they found themselves on, the messages always resonated loudly and were the things that held my attention once I finished The Bird King.
One of these themes was faith. The Bird King explored the collision of different belief systems, the difference between religion and faith, the intersection of faith and sexuality, and the driving forces behind faith.
This theme was most effectively traversed through the character of Hassan. Hassan is both a devout Muslim and a homosexual man who practices magic. To hear most of the other characters in The Bird King tell it, he has no right to whatever privileges their God would offer, yet we see that Hassan has arguably the deepest faith of anyone in the novel, even proving himself willing to risk death to pray.
Some of Wilson’s best prose in The Bird Kind comes through Hassan as he explains his relationship with faith to the other characters and reasons through it himself. It’s fascinating to see how his resolve only strengthens through persecution. It was both inspiring and enlightening and by far my favorite part of The Bird King.
Another highlight, and perhaps the central cog of The Bird King is the theme of friendship and the exploration of platonic love. For something that everyone has in their lives, it’s far too rare that its at the center of a story. Particularly a friendship between a man and a woman.
Fatima and Hassan have an unbreakable bond and their friendship drives the entire story of The Bird King. It’s so beautiful to read as they grow together and sacrifice for one another. These two people who are endlessly judged by society find full, unconditional, mutual love and acceptance in their relationship with each other.
Despite Hassan’s abilities, magic doesn’t feel like a huge part of The Bird King story. The mundane and the mythical blend together seamlessly to create a story that could have happened to you, yesterday, despite the time and place in which it’s actually set.
Fans of gorgeous writing and intriguing ideas from an author who has a lot of knowledge and opinions to offer won’t regret taking a read through The Bird King.