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.



Book Quotes: The Bird King

G Willow Wilson’s latest novel has so many great quotes I wanted to share them with you.

  • “The palace was her home and home was not a matter of loving or hating; to leave it was to do violence to the past”.
  • “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 forces you see are working against you, but some you do not see are working on your behalf”.
  • “‘Maybe they don’t hate us for our freedoms’, she muttered. ‘Maybe they hate us because we’ve been harrying their lands for decades'”.
  • “Perhaps he could see only what he had been taught to see”.
  • “But I’ve come to realize that I must share God with the things that God has set askew”.
  • “‘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.

Book got me thinkin’: ‘Sissy’ by Jacob Tobia and intersectional feminism

I have a confession to make.

[awkward silence]

I was afraid I might be trans-phobic. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t it want to be true. I mean, me? A firm believe in intersectional feminism? But, I couldn’t buy into the traditional trans narrative. It felt to me that (1) we are letting trans-women define what ‘women’ is for the rest of us, and (2) we were reducing what a woman is to clothes and make up. What I was hearing was: “I always wanted to wear dresses and play with barbies; I wore my mother’s make up behind her back, so I knew I was a girl… When I came of age, I took hormones, had THE surgery and now I am a woman.” Or “woman is not about vaginas and having babies”. Well, that is not the center of our identity, but surely, many many women (including some trans-women) do have vaginas. So, when the discourse around gender and feminism, in my opinion, should have been driven by shattering the shackles of gender-policing and gender-conforming, it was actually diluting our identity as women to… just the ‘feeling’ of being a woman. I felt that “I feel like a woman, thus I am a woman” did not take into account the fights and struggles that come with being a woman. I felt that trans-women were not owning their privilege; that privilege comes with society assigning them a gender that is indeed favored and dominant, even if it is against their own will. Plus, I felt that the whole transqueer narrative was ignoring trans-men. Media focuses on gay men to show its inclusiveness, while lesbian women continue to be used as sexual objects. Media was focusing on trans-women and their path, while the stories of trans-men were ignored; not glamorous enough to make headlines. So, patriarchy was still working against women and those considered by society to be women in denial of their identity.

“Sissy”, Jacob Tobia’s memoir about growing up queer and their struggle to become this powerful, glamorous, inspiring person, changed my mind. It opened my eyes. I don’t say this often, or ever, but it made me feel redeemed. It changed my life.

Tobia showed me that the media’s focus on the traditional narrative also hurts the whole movement. The traditional narrative may be true for part of the community, but it does not encompass the whole spirit. It is not only about trans-women and their journey, but the essence is gender non-conformity. Gender roles and gender-norms are patriarchal in nature and the spectrum of non-conformity is wide. It is wide enough for the stories of transwomen who are uber-feminine, trans-men who are androgynous and everything in between. The genderqueer community’s struggle to be free to define themselves, to be themselves in private and public, is not antagonistic to intersectional feminism; it is not about defining what makes a woman a woman, but in essence part of the same fight for equality and against the oppression of patriarchy. 

Tobias won me over when they recognized that when society considers you male, it comes with privilege. But it comes a very high cost. It comes at the cost of completely denying who you are, hiding yourself. It is true that women face an obvious disadvantage and discrimination, and that the gender-pay-gap is real, but we can go onto an interview being who we are (even if toned down). We don’t have to pretend to conform with a gender that we find oppressing. So, is it really privilege? I think the cost they pay greatly exceeds any possible benefits.

So, I am converted. It was truly an enlightening read that I cannot recommend enough.


The Librarian of Auschwitz

“While God’s plan is straight, the way of achieving it is not” – Antonio Iturbide, The Librarian of Auschwitz.

A few back a group of book enthusiasts who use #bookstagram on Instagram as a platform to share out common love of all things bookish (aka the Dallas Bookstagrammers) got together for a fun lunch. We were able to put faces to Instagram handles, make new friends and swap some books. From that meeting, a new book club was born. The book picked for its first meeting was “The Librarian of Auschwitz” by Antonio Iturbe. This is the story of a 14 year old girl who serves as the secret librarian of the kids ward in Auschwitz and it is mostly a tale of survival and coming of age. It is based on a true story and turned into a movie.

Now, I had a long list of reservations when it comes to this book: I don’t like YA, I am not big on historical fiction, I don’t like to read English translations of Spanish books, I don’t like war stories, I don’t like stories of genocide and I try to avoid reading white-male authors unless they have won a literary award. Basically, this book just needed to be a romance to be the anti-thesis of what I like to read. So.. as a compromise, I decided to listen to the audio-book on my commute to-from work, and I have a very long commute. It was more likely to entertain me that try to read it, where my mind will start translating it into Spanish and thinking on how I’d translate it myself.

What do I think you ask?

Well, I find the bits about life in the camp interesting and I think I have learned quite a bit I didn’t know about the family ward and the gas chambers. BUT:

  • The characters are one-dimensional, like a cartoon
  • It’s filled of cliché inspirational quotes I’ve heard a million times
  • It’s so predictable that I feel I could finish the narrator’s sentences
  • Zionism, not cool
  • I feel like I’m talk down to, like I’m a toddler. The narrator is 14 not 8, she could handle a more adult tone.
  • I don’t feel comfortable with typical stereotypes of Jewish and German characteristics

The audiobook narration is entertaining. I would have probably DNFed the book already. But the fake accents make me feel uneasy. Is it politically correct? I don’t know.

Have you read it or listened to it? Thoughts?