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.
Partial synopsis provided by Goodreads.
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Author: G. Willow Wilson
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Publisher: Grove Press
Page Count: 440
Genre: Historical Fiction, Adult, Fantasy
My Rating: ★★★★★
I received an ARC of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
All included quotes have been taken from an ARC and may not match the finished publication.
Content Warning: Death, Slavery, Harem, Torture, Violence, Attempted Rape, Alcoholism, Religious Persecution/War, Adult Content
This review may contain spoilers!
”Long ago, all the birds of the world began to forget their history and their language because they had been leaderless for so long. So a brave few sought out the king of the birds, a king in hiding–the wisest and greatest of all kings, living on the island of Qaf in the Dark Sea beneath the shadow of a great mountain. Waiting for those with the courage to seek him.”
I’m not really sure what I just read. I’ve read books that have simply floored me, and left me with a similar initial sentiment. They were books that called for me to mull them over for a period of time after turning the final page because there was so much to digest. The Bird King, however, doesn’t relate. I literally don’t know what I read. I’ve had time to ruminate on it, yet, little has become more clear.
She was the last reminder of a time of prosperity, when pretty girls could be had from Italian slave merchants for unearthly sums; there had been no money and no victories since.
Despite my previous statement, this book had a strong start. The first quarter of it drew me in like a sponge with the world building and coherency. Fatima, a young, beautiful girl, is the last Circassian concubine to the last sultan of Granada in the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal). She is long friends with the royal and uncanny cartographer, Hassan. It’s no secret that his map-making skills are more than ordinary ink on parchment, which ultimately, is the reason for the start of their long quest. Set in 1491, during the Spanish Reconquista, the sultan informs Fatima that their country is on the brink of ruin. With armies from Castile and Aragon pressing in, supplies being cut off, and money running out, the small Muslim empire soon would become extinct. Shortly after this information is divulged, Christian visitors under a banner of peace arrive at the palace, for reasons not fully disclosed.
Fatima soon becomes warm acquaintances with Luz, an emissary, so-to-speak from the newly-formed country of Spain.
”She’s very clever, this Queen Isabella of Spain–or if she isn’t, there are very clever people advising her. I assumed the general was their hawk–that they went their military man to bully our military men. But they know us better than we know ourselves, it seems. They know my son does not love his viziers or his generals. The people he loves are here, in the harem. They sent their dove to the men. The hawk, they have sent to us.”
Shortly after, Fatima discovers that Luz is actually from the Inquisition, which marks the fall of security for her and her special map-making friend. Deemed a sorcerer for his abilities, Fatima helps Hassan flee beneath the palace to escape the Inquisition.
A lot happens after this point. The book itself feels like it’s split into three parts–the beginning, a long voyage, and the mystical war in the end. It also starts off feeling like a historical fiction, then completely transforms into fantasy story as it nears the end. Personally, I thought it felt disjointed. The more the plot progressed, the less it also made sense.
I really enjoy reading about folklore and fairy tales from different cultures. With doing this, however, I’m more susceptible to be ignorant to intimate details when it comes to unfamiliar lore–which is what happened in this instance. After completing this book, I ended up looking up some of the different aspects represented.
“As I’ve told you, no one living has ever set foot on that island. It’s a story they tell in church to seagoing people who need to believe there’s something left once they’ve lost sight of land.”
According to legend, Roc is a giant eagle, referred to here as the bird king that only lands on Mount Qaf, which is where Fatima and Hassan travel to. Roc is often seen in sailor folklore, in particular, Sinbad the Sailor’s tale. Mount Qaf is the highest mountain in Arabic tradition and referred to as the farthest point of the Earth, assumed to be the North Pole. Jinn, and other odd…things…appear, and aren’t ever really explained.
If you run from this thing, you’ll set it loose. It will lodge in your bloodstream like a splinter and you’ll carry it all your days. It’s too big for that, thought Fatima, half to herself. It’s small said the dog-man. It’s very small. It began as a mote in the eye of the Deceiver. Keep your back straight and don’t look away.
I understand that not everything about folklore will be thoroughly dissected in a book, and I don’t necessarily want it to be. But, these things do require some sort of explanation as to how they fit into the story. This mote? This…thing…that flees from underground and preys upon one of the characters is a missed opportunity, I believe. I never fully understood what it was.
Another area that I had difficulty with were some inconsistencies that presented themselves. Both of them resided with the character of the Monk, Gwennec. First was the vernacular. About halfway through the story, Fatima and Hassan are thrown together with a Christian monk. This monk, however amiable a person at first, sort of ruined the sense of setting for me. His vernacular, and ridiculous use of vulgarity, were not only totally unnecessary, but entirely contradictory. I don’t know whether this was to prove a point, but I found the way he spoke–general vulgarity and using the Lord’s name in vain many a times–to completely derail the setting and his sense of station. Which leads me to my second point–what his character was trying to prove. I don’t fully understand what Gwennec’s point or representation was. Certainly, the Inquisition during this time was supposed to be for good, but wasn’t exactly good. Violence to win over territory and people to Christianity wasn’t a good technique. To say it plainly, Gwennec’s character, and much of this book, heavily focused on pushing boundaries.
”You’re always so angry,” he said. “I don’t understand. You have pretty clothes, entertainments, food when others go hungry. You have the love of a sultan. What else could you possibly want?” Fatima licked the dry, taut line of her lips.
“To be sultan,” she said.
The relentless push of feminism in general just gets old. Don’t mistake me, I get that Fatima would want to be out of a harem–I have no issues with that. It’s the want and desire to completely replace men in any position as “women must conquer all” that strikes me as simply unfeminine. It’s a message that is being broadcasted loud and clear, and one that I don’t agree with. This message becomes most ridiculous when towards the end of the book, Fatmina is designated as “the Bird King,” which–why? Not only that, but how? It’s never explained clearly. Why can’t she just be queen of the birds? I don’t know.
In the end, some “redemption” is exemplified, but even then, the purpose and message behind it felt hostile. This probably just wasn’t a book for me. I really do enjoy reading about different cultures, religions, and lore, but I still need a meaning, and a wholesome one at that. Also, the segmented way in which the story reads and feels makes it more difficult to read as coherence becomes less apparent and purpose less defined throughout.
I think many people who enjoyed The City of Brass would like this one.
Sexual content: The main character is a concubine, so yes. Also, attempted rape, and additional adult scenes.
My Rating: ★★1/2
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