G. Willow Wilson was one of those amazing women who I found smiling with their arms wide open as I allowed myself to pass through gates of fandom. She and Sana Amanat gave us Kamala Khan, and thank God for it. So when I noticed The Bird King sitting casually in the New Releases section of my library I snatched it quickly off the shelf.
The first hundred or so pages of the book play out as an engrossing bit of historical fiction (with hints at magical realism), Fatima is a concubine in the household of the last Sultan of Grenada, as Queen Isabella’s armies close in on the city. Fatima is beautiful, willful, a bit naive and very sad. She’s friend with Hassan, the royal mapmaker, who’s talents are possibly more than they seem, and who enjoys the company of men.
When Isabella sends diplomats to treat for peace, Fatima and Hassan find themselves in the crosshairs of Baronesa Luz, who’s the representative of The Inquisition. (As a Catholic, the Inquisition always makes me shudder, one of the darkest of the dark chapters of the faith I love so much. And there are a lot of them.) She learns of Hassan and part of the peace treaty is handing him over as a sorcerer, Fatima risks her own life and comfort to get him out of the palace, and on their way out, they encounter Vikram, a jinn, and then the world cracks wide open.
As the pair run for their lives, they remember a legend of a hidden island, where the King Of Birds lives, and make that their destination. Hassan draws the map and their quest begins.
Hidden magical islands are a wonderful dreamy part of mythology that seem to always persist, and as it turns out, Fatima and Hassan’s island is all of them at once. And the legends that surround it are all true, and the ending twist is such a wonder that I can’t give it away here.
I’ve reiterated a hundred times that I love stories about stories, and I love religious discussion about why faith is how it is even more than that. Wilson is a Muslim and everytime I read her writing about devotion it touches my heart. The Bird King often reads like a love letter to God, to the God who I’ve felt wrap me up in warmth and love more times than I can remember. But it’s also about stories and the ways that cultures take the same stories and change them, and the way that truth and fact aren’t always the same.
I really, really liked this book, but it’s a slow starter, be warned. But once it opens up, it’s beautiful.
Up next is I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum. More television criticism! I’m going to pick up these books whenever I find them. That’s for sure.