In 1491, Fatima’s world is coming to an end. She is the slave of the last sultan of Moorish Granada and a party of Spaniards have just arrived at the Alhambra to negotiate the sultan’s surrender. But even though it’s the end of one world, Fatima is about to go on a great (albeit dangerous) adventure. The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson, is an amazing journey, full of heroism, sacrifice, battling religions, and magic. I loved every minute of it.
Fatima is a willful woman. Her privileged position lets her get away with a lot, even though she was born a slave and is one of the sultan’s concubine. She has enough leeway to make friends with the miraculous map-maker, Hassan, who has a knack for finding hidden ways around obstacles. Fatima is not particularly concerned about the end of the Emirate of Granada—until the Spanish discover Hassan’s secret and want him handed over to the Inquisition to find out how he does it. Fatima will not let that happen. Her anger and stubbornness, as much as the Reconquista, kicks off this brilliant and exciting tale.
When she was a bit younger, Fatima read the first pages of The Conference of the Birds, a twelfth century poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. The poem tells the story of a bunch of birds who, after much squabbling, decide to fly across the Dark Sea to look for the Bird King. The Bird King will fix things, they believe. This poem inspires Fatima and Hassan’s mad plan to also sail across the Dark Sea (the Atlantic) to seek the land of Qaf, where the Bird King lives. It’s a wild, incredible plan and Fatima would never have considered it if it hadn’t been for the appearance of other supernatural creatures from Middle Eastern myth and Hassan’s own talent for creating impossible maps.
The journey across the Dark Sea to a place that may or may not exist would have been hard enough, but Fatima and Hassan are being pursued by Luz, a lay nun who would have been an Inquisitor if it weren’t for her gender. Luz is terrifying. She tortures at the drop of a hat, using her faith as license to do anything to “save souls.” She also knows things that she shouldn’t and has an uncanny knack for finding our protagonists even when they set sail. There are so many close calls in The Bird King that I could barely put the book down once I’d picked it up. I just had to know how things would turn out.
The ending of The Bird King is spectacular and beautiful, with a dollop of redemption to make things even better. I loved how Wilson used The Conference and djinn together with actual history to create this tale. Her characterization is excellent, too. Even with everything else going on, we learn a lot about Fatima’s psychology and her abiding friendship with Hassan, who is gay and all too willing to sacrifice himself when things get hard. I loved this book so much that, if I go on, I’ll just gush and ruin things for readers. Run, do not walk, to pick up this book!
I received a copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration.