The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Series: stand aloneRating: 3/5
Date of Publishing: March 12th 2019Genre: fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism
Publisher: Grove AtlanticAvailable: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Number of pages: 440Author’s website: http://www.gwillowwilson.com

 

Quote of the Book

“Once a story leaves the hands of its author, it belongs to the reader. And the reader may see any number of things, conflicting things, contradictory things. The author goes silent. If what he intended mattered so very much, there would be no need for inquisitions and schisms and wars. But he is silent, silent. The author of the poem is silent, the author of the world is silent. We are left with no intentions but our own.”

 

Blurb

New from the award-winning author of Alif the Unseen and writer of the Ms. Marvel series, G. Willow Wilson

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 draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

 

Personal notes

ARC were provided through Netgalley. Thanks to G. Willow Wilson and Grove Atlantic.

 

Review

A fellow blogger was reading this book and seemed to like it. It was right up my alley with it being historical fiction, set in Granada, 1492, so I went and requested a copy on Netgalley. I don’t know if I had too high hopes for this one or expected something different, but reading The Bird King I found myself having pretty mixed feelings.

The year is 1492, Castile and Aragon are already united and converted to Christianity, the Inquisition is already established. The only Muslim kingdom that still stands is Granada, though it’s already done, only the royal palace lives in relative peace. However, they already feel the consequences of war – supplies are less and less, servants are dismissed. Here lives Fatima in luxury, who is Lady Aisha’s (the sultan’s mother) slave during the day and the sultan’s concubine during the night. Despite her low status, she lives a pretty spoiled life. Her only friend is Hassan, the mapmaker who is only tolerated in the palace (he prefers the company of men) because of his magical abilities. When the time eventually comes when Granada has to capitulate, Fatima decides to save her friend’s life and make a run for their freedom. Along the way they find unlikely allies and are battered by doubts whether they can find the legendary Bird King – the one they created stories about since their childhood.

Let’s start with things I liked – the side characters. First we have Vikram – the first time I read this name, the first thing that came to mind was that Friends episode where Phoebe tries to lie to Mike about having a serious relationship before, with a guy named Vikram. Anyway, Vikram is a jinn and thus a fickle creature. Which makes him unpredictable and also interesting. Sadly we don’t learn much about him, but he is a pretty entertaining addition to the story. Probably the most entertaining and I almost wish he would have been the MC.

And if side characters, I also liked Gwennec, who had some enjoyable banters with Hassan and had a great sense of preservation – he had no problem adapting to the circumstances. He was also the most selfless character and the purest. Despite their differences both culturally and religiously, he is swept away by the events and is forced to share some of Fatima’s and Hassan’s fate.

I actually enjoyed the beginning of The Bird King, and was really happy to read a book with an Arabic setting. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the culture, the history, the way the royal household dealt with the end of the war. Practically, I was expecting it to be more historical fiction than fantasy. Sadly, that’s not the case. We do get a glimpse into the life in the palace through Fatima’s eyes, but that’s not nearly enough to get a full picture, to really understand how rich and colorful that world used to be. Honestly, this story could have been set in any other time, as real historical events hardly played a crucial role in the events apart from forcing Fatima and Hassan to flee. That could have been replaced by any other event fictional or not.

As I mentioned, the Inquisition is already established by this time and one of the inquisitors  – Baronesa Luz – gets to play the villain. She is as sweet and harmless as she is cruel and fanatic. I actually preferred her too over the other two MCs as her personality was more interesting and layered. Besides, she’s got a great character arc too.

As for the two MCs… I think they annoyed me more times than not. Fatima is spoiled and keeps making decisions I couldn’t fathom why – sleeping with one of the characters was one of many. At times she was brave and strong and I thought, well okay, we are getting somewhere and I might going to like her, but I never really got there. I had similar problems with Hassan. He could have much more role besides being the only thing Fatima couldn’t have, and playing the jealous friend from time to time. I just didn’t really get the relationship between these two. Not quite love, but more than friendship which ends up just being that. I don’t know. I get what the author intended to show here, but it just really didn’t work out for me.

Let me say a few words about the plot. Honestly, after finishing the book, I still don’t really know what was the point. I mean besides the obvious things: freedom, getting as far away from the inquisition as possible in search of a mythical creature, fighting for love. All I could  think for the majority of the book was: but where is this story heading? I’m not quite sure I’m satisfied with the ending either. Things happen a bit too abruptly and the end game would have deserved a bit more building up or a different ending altogether.

In the end, The Bird King is a fantastical adventure story in historical disguise. It would have been much better if it focused more on historical events, even politics, or if we got a deeper look into the Arab mythology, if the religions clashed more to give us a broader understanding of why these cultures fought with each other. The Bird King had so much potential to be outstanding, but it was reduced to a bit of a clich├ęd fantasy book instead. Though, in all honesty, there were some aspects I really liked. Hassan’s ability with the map for example is really cool. I also applaud for the choice of having a character like him, who struggles with his own identity and faith, trying to work it out how to live with himself and God.

The Bird King is a really fast read – I had to check constantly if it really was 440 pages long, because I seemed to fly through it. It sucks you in right from the start, and though it lost me along the way, I’m pretty sure others will find it a really entertaining read. I had problems, but these mostly come from the fact that I expected something different going in and it didn’t deliver for me. But I recommend checking it out nonetheless if you are in search for a book with a female MC, diverse characters, exotic setting and an adventure. The Bird King is the story of love, sacrifice and never giving up on your dreams.

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