The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson | Review

The Bird King Book Cover
The Bird King G. Willow Wilson Fantasy Grove Press March 2019 ebook 440 NetGalley

New from the award-winning author of Alif the Unseen and writer of the Ms. Marvel series, G. Willow Wilson

Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. 

Hassan has a secret–he can draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

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.

G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King is a historical fantasy set in the 1400s and follows Fatima as she and her best friend, Hasan, flee the clutches of an Inquisitor with the help of a reluctant jinn. Historical fantasy is a new to me genre. I am very inexperienced with fantasy both for young adults and adults. When I came across The Bird King on NetGalley, I took the chance. I have a soft spot for historical fiction and wonder how fantastical elements would play out against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition.

The structure of The Bird King makes it easy for readers unfamiliar with the fantasy genre to immerse themselves into the book. Wilson introduces fantastical element slowly as the story progresses. Allowing readers to connect the historical period, Spanish Inquisition, with a world that contain mythical creatures, jinn. Readers immerse themselves in the setting without complicated world building or unfamiliar rules. Readers are introduced to Fatima and Hasan in their nature environment and adjust with them as they try to make sense of the unfamiliar. While the increasing levels of fantastical elements are nice, towards the end of the novel Wilson bumps up the fantastical element with the introduction of a new world and rules. Fatima and her friends adjust to their new environment quickly but readers are left confused struggling to understand the unexpected turn of events.

The writing in The Bird King is engaging, especially the escape scene. Wilson’s writing allow readers to get lost in the time period and the world she creates. While the descriptions of the scenery that Fatima and her traveling companions encounter aren’t overly detailed they are just enough for the reader to visuals what the group are seeing. Battle and escapes scenes are filled with emotions, leaving readers stomachs tension with anticipation and both excited and worried about what will happen next. The dialogue is natural and at times funny, especially when Vikram is in the scene.

With all the positives in The Bird King, it disappointed me to reach the last page and feel confused. After sitting on my feelings about the book for a few days I realized The Bird King left me feeling unsatisfied. And this dissatisfaction came from two of the most important elements of the stories, Fatima’s character arch and her reward for the journey.

The short version is that Fatima’s character arch is not complete. Readers expect at the end of her journey for it to change Fatima. For her to grow as a person. Unfortunately, that does not happen. Part of the problem is Fatima’s biggest flaw is unclear. Hasan and Vikram state several times that Fatima is a selfish, but Fatima’s actions contradict their declarations. In fact, Fatima was self sacrificing, willingly sacrificing her own comfort and safety for that of her friend, Hasan. As the main character, readers also expect Fatima to settle into a leadership role. Which unnecessary because her leadership qualities where on full display throughout the novel expect towards the end when she questions/doubts herself. These inconsistencies in Fatima’s characters doesn’t allow for her character arch to be complete. Which is unfortunate because Fatima’s character overall is complex and her backstory is interesting. She deserved more care.

She also deserved a better reward. Fatima is born a slave and when the story opens she is one of the sultan’s concubines and his mother’s servant. As expected, she desires her freedom and the Inquisitors provide the perfect excuse for her to escape. That and the fact the Inquisitors think her best friend Hasan is a sorcerer. They escape trying to find someplace safe and without giving too much away it is questionable whether their final destination is worth it for Fatima. While her character seems happy, readers are left feeling she escaped from locked cage to the land into another. The location and circumstance surrounding it leaves readers questioning if Wilson gave her heroine the reward she deserved after she had come so far.

I wanted to love The Bird King because Wilson’s writing is amazing. The imagery during the water scenes were perfection and brought the world that Wilson created to life. Based off writing alone this would have been an easy four star read. But the confusing ending and the treatment of Fatima affected the overall enjoy-ability of the story. I look forward to reading G. Willow Wilson work in the future because there was just so much promise within the pages of The Bird King.

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