The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
G. Willow Wilson’s 2019 YA Novel The Bird King is a wonderful read: an exciting adventure with a complicated female protagonist, set in a time and place that may be unfamiliar to many of us. Magic is woven throughout the book, as young Fatima wrestles with the concepts of faith, freedom and leadership.
Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine in the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. She holds a precarious place in the palace hierarchy. As a slave she’s powerless; as the Sultan’s concubine she wields, or could wield, great influence, especially if she bears him a son. Fatima, born into enslavement, dreams of freedom, but the closest she gets to it is the magical maps drawn by her friend, the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Hassan can map a place that exists only in his imagination, and the map will bring it to life.
The besieged Sultan is preparing to surrender to the emissaries of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. One of the representatives is a woman named Luz. Luz seems surprisingly friendly at first, knowledgeable and respectful of Fatima’s culture. The Christian visitors, however, demand Hassan’s execution for practicing witchcraft as part of the surrender, and Fatima makes an impulsive break for freedom, taking the mapmaker with her.
The rest of the story is a chase, as Fatima, Hassan and the hapless monk they accidentally abduct when they steal his boat struggle to keep ahead of the Inquisition. Along the way, Fatima is aided at times by Vikram, a djinn, and once by Vikram’s sister, a fascinating character who makes a brief appearance.
Along with the suspense and action — and there’s plenty — Wilson delivers good character development and growth, especially with Fatima, who matures as the book continues. I was a little shocked at how quickly, under physical deprivation, Fatima’s and Hassan’s relationship deteriorated into bickering, but I think that’s accurate. Wilson doesn’t shy away from sexual jealousy or the small betrayals we succumb to under stress. Educated, politically astute Fatima is nearly helpless in a world outside the palace (when they decide to run, Hassan points out that Fatima, a richly dressed concubine, doesn’t have shoes), and this adds to the stakes. Pursuing them is Luz, a fascinating, multilayered adversary.
In a few places, I thought Wilson was a bit too on the nose. At one point, when the Sultan asks Fatima in an exasperated tone what could she want more than to be the concubine of a Sultan, Fatima answers, “To be Sultan.” This line has important resonance later in the story, but it undercuts Fatima’s stronger conversation with the Sultan’s mother earlier in the book. Pointing out the luxury and the leisure in which Fatima lives, Lady Aisha asks “ … What does the world offer that you don’t have here?” Fatima answers, “Air, my lady.”
The epic poem The Conference of the Birds, by Farid Ud-Din Attar, provides the title for the book, which runs through the story as a constant theme. Hassan and Fatima are searching for the magical Island of the Bird King, which they hope will provide a refuge.
I wouldn’t call Wilson’s prose fancy, but her depiction of detail in the physical world spins Fatima’s world up into three-dimensional life, both the mundane and the magical. The book is filled with interesting women. Fatima’s approach to her own beauty, which is remarked on constantly by others, was refreshing and plausible, although her personal resolution at the end came up very quickly, and again, seemed a bit too neat. These are quibbles. Late teens who like reading books with female protagonists or have an interest in Europe’s medieval period will enjoy this. In fact, anyone studying Isabella and Ferdinand might benefit from reading The Bird King.
And, of course, this book is for anyone who enjoys magic, and people who fight to be free.
This sounds wonderful!
The Bird King is a fabulous book. I highly recommend it to everyone. 5 Stars. By Gregg L. Friedman MD
you had me at “magical mapmaker”. “Hapless Monk” is a luxury
There is also a horse, but I didn’t want to put all the goodies on the buffet table at once.