G. Willow Wilson ‘s The Bird King holds many truths within its pages, but one stands out: stories, it promises, have the ability to not only free us, but empower us to become the avenue of our own escape.
Fatima and Hassan, the main protagonists of this tale, know this better than anyone; both of them are part of the royal court of Granada, and both important in their own ways. Fatima is a concubine to the Sultan, pleasing him and caring for the palace because she is told to, but never because she wishes to. Hassan is a cartographer with a special gift; through his drawings and etchings, he can make maps that change reality—creating rooms that have never existed, tunnels that were not there before, altering the world through the act of putting pen to paper.
The two of them are barely masters of their lives, let alone their fates. Fatima is essentially a slave, regardless of her lofty position, and Hassan, for all that the Sultan puts up with his drinking and sleeping with men, would never be allowed to leave the palace with the powers he possesses. Each is in a prison of sorts, but they find comfort in one another, both in simple friendship and their shared telling of an epic poem called, “The Bird King.” In one another, they have found a sort of escape: a world to which they can fly away, and be free.
Even these small comforts are under threat, however. For Granada is under siege, and efforts to resist it are failing. As an envoy from a newly founded Spain comes to the royal court seeking Granada’s surrender, Fatima meets Luz, a nun of this burgeoning nation. When Luz learns of Hassan’s abilities, she sees them as a threat to her country and her god, and Fatima fears her friend’s life will be taken in the surrender to the Spanish. Fleeing in the middle of the night, desperate to save him so they may together escape the confines of Granada, Fatima begins a long, arduous journey across land and sea and even into unknown realms, seeking true escape—from Luz, from Spain, from any who would try to shackle them.
What follows is a trek fraught with perils both mortal and immortal, yet the novel’s true heart is the bond between Fatima and Hassan, and in watching them grow beyond the people they thought themselves to be, and learn how to take control of the story of their lives.
Wilson, who won the World Fantasy Award for her debut novel Alif the Unseen and has received numerous accolades for her work in comics (including her original graphic novel Cairo and the creation of Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel), is no stranger to epic stories. Across mediums, her stories are rife with complex characterization, empathy for all citizens of the world, and a fierce determination to see that good and right win out in the end. The Bird King continues this tradition with a story that is equally invested in Fatima and Hassan learning how to be brave, how to be just, how to rise above mere survival, as it is in documenting their fantastical travels across 14th century Spain and beyond.
One of the many great joys of this novel is the time and attention given to the inner journeys of the characters as they experience incredible adventures. Their growth is measured; true change is rarely a smooth transition, and Fatima and Hassan fight dearly to become who they’re meant to be, even if it entails hurting one another. Both must learn to forgive. Coming from lives of near-imprisonment, they have no choice but to trust one another, and yet it is when they do choose to do so—when silence their inner demons and listen instead to the voices of their hearts—that The Bird King soars.
As much the novel argues in the importance of stories, Willow also realizes that, at a certain point, they must end. The latter half of the novel explores how truly far believing in stories can take you, and what happens when the story ends, and life doesn’t. How do you carry onward? The final sections of the narrative are its most moving and enjoyable, as everything we’ve learned about the characters is put to the test in the best way possible, simply by asking: what next?
The Bird King is a stunning novel, overflowing with lush prose and careful examinations of humanity, faith, empathy, and justice. Its characters are deeply human: complex, and humorous, and stubborn, and wonderful. It’s a book that, in its own way, serves as a guideline for anyone looking for inspiration that will help them take control of their own story. At the end of the day, we’re all writing the stories of our lives; The Bird King reminded me that I have the power to tell my story exactly the way I want. I hope it does the same for you.
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