Reviewed by Ian Atkins
“These treaties are made for polities, not people. Lives are ground up beneath the wheels of peace.” G. Willow Wilson’s highly anticipated release, The Bird King, explores a fictionalized version of 15th century Iberia, right before the Grenada war. Historically, this time was filled with a lot of suspicions and holy wars, and this novel capitalizes on this. The novel itself follows Fatima, a concubine to the sultan at the time.
The plot itself picks up when Fatima’s friend, Hassan, is declared to be a “sorcerer” of sorts, and they both escape to go on the run from the sultan. The rest of the story is a lot of walking around and discussion of cartography. The pacing of this story is the biggest issue with this book, with the plot not necessarily moving forward at any given speed. There are instances where the plot picks up, but they eventually fall back into a rhythm of nothing happening. This issue takes only a little away from the rest of the novel, with the other aspects making up for it and going even further than that to make this an enjoyable read overall.
The writing style of this novel is gorgeous in every single way. The sentence structure is superb. It is as if Wilson chose every single word very carefully when crafting this work. The language lends itself to the story in that it fits the time period as well as the location. This aspect of the novel is probably the strongest, with every part of the writing shining through in the story. The reader can see how much effort was put into this book by looking at Wilson’s writing.
The diversity of this work is absolutely astounding in that it taught me of a historical situation I knew next to nothing about. I think that when you learn something important that a lot of history books just glossed over or skipped completely, that is when you know a work is good. Teaching people about events that would otherwise go unnoticed is important to keeping everyone educated. Going along with the diversity, Hassan, Fatima’s best friend in the novel, is a gay cartographer. For the younger readers of this book, or even the older ones that are still figuring out themselves, this story will be a good example of representation. Diversity is so important in novels, especially today, and this book exemplifies on this story in a respectful and efficient way.
In every good story that concerns concubines and sultans, there will usually be mentions of sexual violence and other possible triggering things. This takes absolutely nothing away from the story itself. However, for some readers, this can alter their reading experience and it is important to take note of the triggering events in this story before attempting to read this book. There are mentions of slavery, rape, animal cruelty, and torture throughout this novel, so if any of those affect you as a reader in any way, take caution before reading this book.
Looking at this novel from an outside perspective, it seems to be just a magical realism novel set in a time period that is glanced over, but this novel explores religious conflicts within multiple religions and how the belief systems of a lot of religions are rooted in the same thing, so what is the point in fighting? This work leaves the reader thinking about religious beliefs while also taking them on a journey filled with a lot of grief, but also a sense of finding oneself in a world that does not necessarily want you in. I recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction or magical realism. The Bird King perfectly encapsulates a scary and traumatic world while also making the reader fall in love with her prose.