Seattle author G. Willow Wilson’s second novel (after World Fantasy Award-winning “Alif the Unseen”), “The Bird King,” is an enchanting historical fantasy adventure that combines an unconventional love story with a thoughtful exploration of faith and religious tolerance.
The year is 1491. The once vast empire of Al Andalus, or Moorish Spain, has been reduced to the isolated city of Granada. For the beautiful and headstrong Fatima, an orphaned concubine born into the harem of the reigning Sultan Abu Abdullah, the world begins and ends at the walls of the Alhambra; she’s never even owned a proper pair of shoes. In a relatively tolerant society, hers is life of privileged slavery: “All are equal before God, but some are meant to be bought and sold.”
Fatima has held her own in this hotbed of palace intrigue under the protection and tutelage of the sultan’s imperious mother, Aisha. Her other main ally is the gay royal mapmaker Hassan, whose fondness for men and for drink are overlooked by the imams, owing to his special gift.
As Hassan describes it, “I make maps of things I’ve never seen … and sometimes of things that don’t quite exist, except when I need them to.” In Hassan’s case, the map truly is the territory, or soon becomes it. Hassan’s knack for drawing secret passageways into existence has been a secret weapon for the badly outnumbered Nasrid sultans, and an occasional diversion for the stifled Fatima.
The pair’s other favorite pastime is spinning tales of a quest to a mythic island in search of the Bird King, inventing new chapters for an incomplete manuscript of the classic Persian fable “The Conference of the Birds.” Languishing in the threadbare luxury of a dying empire, Hassan and Fatima find refuge in stories and in each other’s company, freed from the claims of desire and ownership.
Then the end finally comes, as a delegation from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appears on the sultan’s doorstep to negotiate the terms of his surrender. Among the Spaniards’ company is the eerily cordial Baronesa Luz, a widow and lay sister of the Dominican order, and the sort of warm and sympathetic soul who will kick a dog when nobody’s looking.
No sooner has she wormed her way into discovering the guileless Hassan’s magical ability than Fatima discovers Luz is an agent of the Tribunal Del Santo Officio, aka the Spanish Inquisition, for whom “sorcerers” like Hassan are prized game. Luz may sincerely profess to hate the sin but love the sinner, but her methods begin with torture, and often lead to burning at the stake. Hassan’s observation will resonate for many readers: “It’s what comes out of her mouth that’s so terrifying. Not even that — it’s the fact that people listen to her. That’s the most terrifying thing of all.”
As the Inquisition cracks down, Fatima and Hassan decide to make a run for it, the “black cloaks” hot on their heels. Fortunately, the defenseless pair have a powerful ally: Vikram the Vampire — the droll, wisecracking jinn who also starred in Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen” — provides welcome comic relief during their perilous flight across the unforgiving landscape toward the sea. Although there is plenty of earthy banter along the way, Wilson relates her narrative with a spare lyricism that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, in a style that more closely resembles an exotic fairy tale than the elaborate world-building and magical lore of much fantasy fiction.
This fabulous quality grows even more pronounced when our heroes take to the waves with the assistance of a seemingly sympathetic Breton monk named Gwennec, and their headlong chase takes a fanciful turn more reminiscent of Calvino or Coelho than Tolkien. The moral to this tale involves the complex nature of love and of faith, and the fundamental errors of intolerance and persecution. As Brother Gwennec pragmatically observes: “Some ideas are so beautiful that even evil people believe in them … But I’ve come to realize that I must share God with the things that God has set askew.”
Moving beyond simplistic conceptions of good versus evil, “The Bird King” is ultimately a story of acceptance of self and others. It’s precisely the kind of fable we need right now.
“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson, Grove Press, 416 pp., $26