I don’t think I’ve ever read a both that’s quite so lush and strange as The Bird King.
It’s an unusual mash-up of the exotic, magic, and historical fiction; it’s a slow-burner, but rewards patient reading. It also contains some of the freshest twists on heroes, damsels in distress and villains that I’ve recently had the pleasure to read.
So: what’s it all about? We’re in the Alhambra, just before the fall of the last ruler of Granada, and the Spanish are closing in. Fatima, one of the last concubines in the palace, wants to run away with Hassan, a gay mapmaker whose maps can make doors and places appear out of nowhere and vanish into thin air. Together, they set out on a journey of a lifetime, to a place that doesn’t exist, pursued by Luz, a representative of the Spanish Inquisition- who thinks that Hassan is a devil.
Bit weird, right? But somehow, it works. The history of this semi-fantastical land is rich and the mythology is detailed and lush. I loved reading about Hassan’s talent, the culture clashes between the Muslims and the Christians, and the palace. To be honest, I would have been happy if this whole book had been set in the Alhambra, but there you go.
Things take a turn for the interesting once we leave, though. Fatima and Hassan’s epic quest to find Qaf, the island of the Bird King, rapidly becomes a boring succession of narrow escapes and also eating animals raw.
It only really comes to life when Fatima faces off against Luz, who gives off a kind of dark magnetism that really draws you to her. The respect and the fear these two women feel for each other is palpable and makes for fascinating reading; the same goes for Fatima’s relationship with Hassan. We don’t see these kind of platonic relationships too much in literature but the love these two clearly feel for each other bleeds off the page- though it’s never idealised, and they often fall out. The relationship between these two make up the backbone of the novel: no other romantic relationship ever comes close to matching it.
With all that, it’s almost a shame when we move from the real (that is, the highly interesting in its own right fifteenth century Spain) to the fantastical. In fact, it is a bit of a shame, because the first half of the book is at its most interesting when you can see history playing out alongside it. The island they (spoiler) make it to feels a little bit… off, especially the idea of ten of these castaways living for the rest of their lives cut off from the outside world. It just doesn’t sit right with me, which is a shame.
That aside, Wilson’s writing is beautiful, and the love story between Fatima and Hassan- as well as the hate story between Fatima and Luz- make this well worth a read. Long live the Bird King!