The Bird King is, quite simply, a beautiful, vividly imaginative book. The story, the characters, the world building, the mythology… Wilson crafts all of these so masterfully that it’s easy — and immensely enjoyable — to lose oneself in the world she has created. The story is set in 1491, at a sultanate on the verge of collapsing to the Christian Spanish empire. Our heroine is Fatima, one of the sultan’s concubines who has never been beyond the palace walls. Her best friend is Hassan, the palace map maker with the ability to create reality with the maps he draws. When Fatima unwittingly reveals Hassan’s abilities to a woman from the Spanish Inquisition, she and Hassan flee the palace to save Hassan’s life.
The story takes place in an actual historical period, and there are certainly many elements that reveal the realities of the time. Through Fatima, we feel almost viscerally the fear the Muslim characters felt as they are hunted by the Spanish Inquisition. We see elements of the torture they inflict, and how the sultan himself is kept hostage by his love for his children. I especially love the details that make Fatima and Hassan’s struggles feel real, for example the taste of the water they have to drink and the way Fatima’s feet are in great pain because she’s never walked further than within the palace walls. Most of all, the story is infused with a sense of impending tragedy. We know that Islamic sultanates will fall to Spanish rule, we know the horrific injustices done to non-Christians, and we know how the effects of this period in history continue to be felt today. Yet like Fatima, we are helpless to do anything to prevent its inevitability; all we can do is hope that Fatima and Hassan, and others like them, can at least escape.
The magic of this novel however is how deftly Wilson interweaves mythology and supernatural elements within the realistic events. In the palace, even before the Spanish forces arrive, Fatima and Hassan pass the time by telling stories about The Bird King. Inspired by a half-finished poem they found, they imagine how various kinds of birds travel long distances to a mythical island where the king of the birds dwells. In Fatima and Hassan’s flight, what begins as a casual pastime transforms into a focal point of hope, as Hassan draws a map that he says leads to the real island of the Bird King, where he and Fatima will be safe both from the sultan and from Spain.
Wilson somehow makes this work, and even though we share in Fatima’s skepticism that the map actually leads anywhere, we also can’t help but get caught up in her hope that it does. Throughout their journey, they are assisted by djinns and a Catholic priest, and I love how Wilson uses these characters to make her world so much richer. For example, when Fatima asks one of the djinns how the original Bird King poem ends, his response is cryptic yet turns out to be more true than we initially realize. And when the Catholic priest sees Hassan’s map and shares a story from his own culture, we realize how many of these stories and mythologies can overlap, and somehow all be true in some way.
The ending fell a bit short for me, just because the lead up was so epic, and to be honest, the last few chapters confused me at first. But I do like how the story of the Bird King turns out, and how it critiques and subverts ideas of gender roles. And even though it confused me, I do like how the ending blurs the boundaries between space and time, much as the story has always blurred the boundaries between mythologies.
This is an incredible book, perfect for readers of historical fantasy, especially if like me, you’re looking for more women-centric stories, and more diverse range of mythologies.
Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.