Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : March 12, 2019

Publisher : Grove Press

HAPPY MONDAY! Following in Emory’s footsteps, I’m starting off my review with a synopsis provided by the publisher:

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 make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His magical gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime and entertained a bored Fatima who has never stepped foot outside the palace walls.

When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, little realizing that her new friend Luz represents the Inquisition, and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With everything on the line, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan, and taste the freedom she has never known.

Y’all. This book…. was SO GOOD. Wilson (author of Alif the Unseen and a series of the Captain Marvel comics) blends medieval historical fiction with adventure fantasy and the end result is a truly magical book. It has the expected elements of dangerous politics, government spies, religious oppression, and secret identities, but Wilson also adds something so special to the story through her prose and the characters she’s created.

Fatima is an a m a z i n g character. She is stubborn and fierce and acts as the moral center of the novel for most of the story, and her bravery never seems to waver throughout the book – and there are a lot of instances where that bravery is tested. Whenever she was facing a hardship or being tested, I always found myself looking forward to how she would react, because she’s such a strong character. I felt like I never had to worry too much, because of course Fatima was going to be all right. I loved loved loved her as a character so much.

At the beginning of the book, Fatima spends most of her time escaping her reality for made up ones – something she can literally achieve due to her friendship with Hassan, who can create new realities for both of them. by drawing maps that come to life. Much of their inspiration for the stories they make up come from the pages they have of Farid ud-Din Al Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (which plays a very significant role at the end. Like seriously, the ending of this book is G R E A T). And this is another thing I really, really loved about this book – the fact that Fatima and Hassan spend their time together taking brief respites into fake worlds, only to end up having to escape their lives for real in the hopes of finding a happiness that has eluded them so far.

The friendship between Fatima and Hassan was the strongest point of the entire novel for me. They bond with each other over the limits of their freedom – Fatima is limited by her role as a concubine, and Hassan by his queerness. Their status as outsiders is what draws them to each other initially, but the the care and concern that they feel for each other is clear. When Hassan is put in danger, you can viscerally feel Fatima’s fear over it. Their platonic love for each other is so beautifully written, and I don’t really have the words to describe just how much I appreciate Wilson creating these two characters and the journey they go on with each other, and for each other.

If this book wasn’t already amazing enough, the side characters are all brilliantly written as well, whether they are friends, foes, or someone in-between. Perhaps one of the coolest characters in the book is the vampire djinn Vikram, who helps Fatima and Hassan escape Luz and the Inquisition. And the introduction of the fourth member of their group – the monk Gwennec – is one of my favorites, seeing as he just so happens to be on the boat that they steal, inadvertently bringing him in to join them on their escape. Even Luz, arguably the villain of the novel, is so well written, and is such an intriguing character.

There is so much to admire about this book, and one of the highlights is how Wilson tackles the theme of perspective and choice. The book is full of characters who choose who their family is, and who choose where their loyalties lie, despite having bonds or duties to other people or institutions. Religion and politics play such a huge role in the novel, and Wilson spins a beautiful and almost tragic message of how the world is sometimes what our perspective makes it out to be. There is never just one real world with one set of truths, and Fatima and Hassan’s journey throughout the story proves that to not only themselves, but to the reader as well.

The Bird King is Wilson’s second full length novel, and I think I can say it is a wild success. It hits so many marks – the characters are fleshed out and interesting, the plot is complicated and thrilling and keeps you on your toes, and the language is beautiful and vivid. I really can’t say enough good things about the story. It is one of the books that you don’t want to put down because it is so good, but you also don’t want it to ever end, so you try to pace yourself so you can stay in the world just a little bit longer. At its core, The Bird King is a story about stories, and about how they have the power to both hinder us or free us, depending on what we choose to take from them.


My rating:

10 Map-Drawn Realities out of 10