The Bird King

Written by G. Willow Wilson
Review by Martha Hoffman

The year is 1491, and Granada, the last foothold of Islamic rule in Iberia, is under siege. Food is running short, but the inhabitants of the royal court continue their rivalries and intrigues. Fatima, a concubine with liminal status between slave and potential future mother of a prince, spends languid hours in the company of Hassan, the royal mapmaker, who has the ability to create new doors and passages through the palace by drawing them.

Envoys from the besiegers enter the city, among them Luz, a woman of great authority, openly the personal representative of the Castilian Queen Isabella, and covertly an agent of the Inquisition. When Luz glimpses Hassan’s ability, she is determined to bring him to trial on charges of sorcery. Hassan almost gives into his fate, but Fatima pushes him to use his gift to help them escape. They meet up with a mongrel haunting the palace grounds who turns out to be a jinn, a magical creature both fierce and poetic. Racing to the Mediterranean, they are pursued by Luz and her men, and joined by the monk Gwennec, whose loyalties are unclear. Also on the journey is some other profound evil, whose presence and nature is only slowly becoming apparent.

As Fatima finds her strength, Hassan’s maps take them further into uncharted territory, where the story abandons history entirely and becomes fantasy or fable. The rules of Hassan’s gift mean that occasionally doors stay open when they shouldn’t or close before you want them to. What will happen to this new refuge if they close the way there?

The settings and imagery in this book are captivating, and Wilson demonstrates sensitivity to both Christianity and Islam. Close calls, captures, and escapes get a little repetitive, and the story loses some focus as it becomes more fantastic, but themes of friendship, love, and finding one’s true self are woven throughout.