Book Review: The Bird King

The real struggle on this earth is not between those who want peace and those who want war. It’s between those who want peace and those who want justice. If justice is what you want then you may often be right, but you will rarely be happy.

“The Bird King’ is G Willow Wilson’s second novel, after “Alif the Unseen”. It has many things in common, such as the fact that it is a fantasy novel where love plays an important part, it has jinns as characters and it refers old manuscripts. But the story is entirely different. This time, G Willow Wilson takes us back to Islamic Spain, to the last days of Granada. Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine, born and raised in Granada, and longing for freedom. Her best friend is Hassan, the mapmaker, who has a very special power: he can map places he’s never been and bent reality. When the Spanish Inquisition arrives and it becomes obvious to Fatima that they intend to try Hassan for sorcery, Fatima takes Hassan away. With the help of Vivram the Vampire, a jinn (who was also a character in ‘Alif the Unseen’), they manage to escape Granada and go on an adventure that will transcend reality.

This novel takes place in the Middle Ages, and like the medieval romances, the main characters share platonic love. Hassan is gay, so it would never develop into a passionate relationship, but their love gives them purpose. However, this is a feminist story with a strong female lead, and Fatima is no damsel in distress. On the contrary, she is continuously, selflessly putting herself in danger to keep Hassan (and the rest of the crew that ends up tagging along) safe. There are some pretty powerful feminist messages in this story. For example, on the power of women’s anger:

‘You were taught to waste your anger,’ Vikram tells Fatima. ‘It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous’

Also, at another point in the novel the Sultan of Granada tells Fatima:

‘You’re always so angry’, he said. ‘I don’t understand. You have pretty clothes, entertainment, foods when others go hungry. You have the love of a sultan. What else could you possibly want?’. Fatima licked the dry taut line of her lips. ‘To be sultan’, she said.

The novel has so many different layers of meaning and moral messages that I felt like I need to read it three or four times to understand it. One of the themes is freedom. Fatima was born pampered and lived in a so-to-speak golden cage, for it was no free. She had everything anyone could want except what she really needed: freedom and love. This story is her quest for freedom and love and the price one must pay to have both.

Another theme is the relation between Muslim and Christians and the perceived clash of civilizations. The central theme of the novel calls for understanding that we are dealing with two sides of the same coin:

If Luz was right, she would be punished for failing to acknowledge that God had a son; if the imam who grumbled from the minbar in the royal mosque was right, she would be punished for even considering such a proposition. Belief never seemed to enter into anything: it was simply a matter of selecting the correct system of enticements.

This an important message in today’s world, polarized between Islamophobia and anti-Western sentiment and terrorism. One of the arguments presented is that if each community believes that the other one is wrong, then we must have space to share God with those who God made, even if we believe them to be askew.

While this is not as fast paced and page-turner as ‘Alif the Unseen’, is a beautiful deep work that shares some truths that need to be told. I cannot recommend it enough.



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