Some books are adventure stories, some are fantasies, and some are historical fiction. However very few writers manage to successfully combine all three. With her newest book, The Bird King, from Grove/Atlantic Press, G. Willow Wilson has joined the ranks of those who’ve accomplished this remarkable feat.
Fatima is a concubine in the court of the last Islamic ruler in 15th century Spain. Only Grenada hasn’t fallen under the sway of Spain and the Inquisition, but as our story begins that’s about to all change.
Fatima’s closest friend is Hassan the sultan’s map maker. However, Hassan’s maps are special – for what he draws on his vellum magically takes shape in the real world even if it didn’t previously exist.
While this talent has allowed Grenada and the Sultan to survive up to this point, its also an aptitude that would bring Hassan to the unwelcome attention of the Inquisition. For although Fatima takes his skill for granted, others will condemn it as sorcery. Combined with Hassan’s preference for male lovers he will most likely be tortured and killed by the Spanish in the name of their God.
Desperate to save her friend from the death, Fatima, convinces him they must flee Grenada and find a safe haven somewhere. Perhaps Hassan can draw them a map to a land they have only heard about in stories, Antillja, island home of The Bird King, and they can find a refuge.
The mythical island, taken from the ancient story The Conference of the Birds, was where the birds of the world went to look for their king when they felt they were drifting away from their true identity. By running her story in parallel with the original that of the search for The Bird King, Willow has created not only an adventure story, but a wonderful journey into the self for her characters.
Fatima travels the furtherest and learns the most about herself and about the nature of love. What’s wonderful about the story is how Willow allows her character’s education to occur as natural extensions of their actions and the adventure.
It’s beautifully done and allows us to appreciate Fatima as more than just a plucky heroine. Not only is she willing to fight for her survival, but she’s also able to take a good long look at herself and understand her flaws.
Of course, like all of us, she does need help doing this. The characters Willow has supplied her with as companions along the way, both the human and the jinn, either encourage or force her into periods of introspection.
G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King takes us on a magical and exciting journey during one of the truly horrible moments in human history. However, in spite of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition we see how the power of friendship and love can be a balm to hearts and souls not matter how much hate is spewed. A much needed reminder for the times we are currently living through.
(Article originally posted at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.