There are some authors whose books I’ll buy for the library almost sight unseen. They’re usually the authors who are so popular that I know library patrons are going to want to read their books, but sometimes they’re authors I personally love, whose books I’ve recommended over and over to prospective readers. There are authors (we probably all have them) for whom the very announcement that they have a new book coming out is enough to set my heart racing and make me decide we have to have that book.
One of those authors, for me, is G. Willow Wilson, and my eagerness to read her new book, The Bird King, was largely based on how much I loved her last book, Alif the Unseen, which I read for a category in one of the Read Harder challenges. Sadly, Alif the Unseen is not available here at the Field Library, which is why I haven’t written it up for the blog, but it’s a wonderful book that combines adventure and fantasy and romance in a Middle Eastern culture I haven’t seen often depicted in fantasy novels, with a supporting heroine worthy of her own book, or her own series.
The Bird King is set in the last days of the Reconquista in Spain, as Ferdinand and Isabella were consolidating their control over the country and pushing out the last of the Moorish kingdoms. The story begins in a palace in Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, already under siege and reaching the end of its existence. Fatima, our protagonist, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the sultan, a servant to his mother, the Lady Aisha. Her closest friend in the palace is Hassan, the palace mapmaker, who has the amazing ability to make the world correspond to what he draws in his maps: he can make doors appear where there were none in reality, and tunnels from one place to another that never existed before his maps. Naturally Hassan has used this gift for the sultan and his people earlier in the war, and he’s more than willing to continue to use this talent to help those he cares about. There is no possibility of a marriage or even a sexual relationship between Fatima and Hassan, because he is attracted only to men. This is something the sultan and most of the other people in the palace are aware of, and they tolerate this behavior of his because of his outstanding gifts, but even from the outset we know this is going to be a problem sooner or later.
It becomes a problem when the emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, a general and a religious woman, come to the palace to offer terms for the sultan’s surrender. The general seems like the more powerful character, but it’s the woman, Luz, who makes things happen, and when Fatima discovers that Luz is associated with the Inquisition, she realizes that Luz, and the people she represents, are the biggest danger to Hassan. Indeed, when Luz finds out what Hassan can do, she naturally takes the position that he is in league with the devil, and insists that he be surrendered to the Inquisition. While the sultan and even Lady Aisha are willing to pay for peace with Hassan’s life, Fatima is not, and so she and Hassan escape the palace and make a break for freedom, with the help of a dog who is really a jinn named Vikram (a character we met already in Alif the Unseen, though he’s pretty much the only character in common between those two books; he was a delight in Alif and he’s a wonderful character here, too, much more than a supernatural helper when the couple need him and never someone who can be entirely relied upon for that kind of help), and with all the forces of the Inquisition after them.
Wilson is excellent at creating characters. None of the people or beings we meet in this book are predictable or simple, from Hassan to Fatima, from Aisha to the sultan, from Gwennec, the novice monk they encounter along the way, even to Stupid, the horse they end up taking on board a boat with them. Where she really excels is in her villains, and Luz is amazing. Anyone can write a totally evil person who acts cruelly and viciously just for the sake of evil, and such all powerful, all evil characters aren’t terribly interesting or believable. Luz does horrible things and plans even more terrible ones, but she is always plausible, she’s charming and sweet even to the people she’s setting out to destroy, and she has reasons for her actions. They may not be reasons you’d agree with (they certainly aren’t reasons I’d agree with), but she’s got realistic motivations (even without the supernatural help she gets), and she is disturbingly powerful, a worthy opponent for our characters.
The world of The Bird King is vivid and realistic, despite the many paranormal things that occur in it. Distances are vast, people don’t develop the ability to walk for days and days without pain, you can’t immediately set foot in a small sailboat and immediately know how to sail it unless someone shows you how (and even then you can make stupid mistakes). All the details of hunger and thirst, physical and emotional pain, the smells of waterfronts and cities, the dry air of late summer in Spain combine to bring this world to life without the book’s ever stopping its forward momentum or slowing you down to force you to look at any of it.
I read the book in two days, and would have devoured it in one if I hadn’t had to waste time on silly things like eating and sleeping and going to work. If you want a rich, immersive book with characters you care about, plenty of action, set in a world you’re probably not very familiar with, you could hardly do better than to pick up The Bird King. But make sure you set aside time, because you’re not going to want to put it down once you start it.