Book review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Every good thing, so the saying goes, must come to an end, driven by a harsh chronological reality which has no place for favouritism, sentimentality or once transcendent power.

Whether the Emirate of Granada on the Iberian peninsula is one of those good things is entirely dependent on whether you are a a member of the Muslim kingdom established in 1230 in the southern part of Spain (before there was, in fact, a Spain at all) and ruled over by the Nasrid dynasty until 1491, when The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson is set, or part of the emergent Christian powerhouse kingdom ruled over by Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Castile, León, Aragon and Sicily.

Certainly by 1491 when the Muslim presence on the Iberian presence is all but extinguished by the ascendant unified Christian kingdoms ruled over by the House of Trastámara, the Emirate of Grenada is reduced to a besieged city clinging to the remnants of a once mighty empire.

Living in this city, which still retains considerable vestiges of its onetime overweening glory thanks to the majesty and grandeur of the Alhambra palace complex at its heart, is Fatima, an enslaved woman of Circassian descent (from the Northwest Caucuses) who is owned, for all intents and purposes, by Lady Aisha, mother of the last ruler of the kingdom.

Her life is, for a slave at least, a reasonably favoured one – she is fed, dressed well, educated to a high degree, and has the somewhat affectionate patronage of the mother of Muhammad XII of Granada with whom she openly sleeps in an arrangement that has the full weight and support of the court.

The one thing that is missing, freedom, lies far beyond her grasp, until a Castile delegation sent by Ferdinand and Isabella arrives one day, presaging the end of the Kingdom of Grenada and setting in train a sequence of events that upends Fatima’s life in its entirety.

“There was a door in the western wall that hadn’t been there on Fatima’s last visit to Hassan’s workroom. It stood innocently ajar in its frame of white plaster, a simple rectangle of wood dotted with iron fastenings, its edges cracked and dry, as if it had been there as long as the Alhambra itself. Fatima stood on one foot and leaned sideways to peek around the door, shielding her body behind its solid bulk to protect herself from whatever might lie beyond it.” (p. 2)

The delegation, which like many things in late fifteenth century Spain is overseen by the cruelly unyielding viciousness of the Inquisition which executes its mission to Christianise Europe and the world with horribly efficient zeal, discovers through the seemingly benign presence of Baroness Luz that Fatima’s close friend Hassan, the kingdom’s mapmaker, has gifts that extend beyond his ostensible cartographic talents.

In the estimation of the Church, which brooks no opposition and allows no fallibility in its determinations, Hassan is a sorcerer, thanks to his ability to picture places he has never seen and draw them with startling accuracy, a gift which allows the Muslim forces on the peninsula some measure of military success before their eventual downfall.

His gifting or curse, again dependent on which side of the religious and political divide you sit, also allows him to open up portals where there are none, a crucial talent when Fatima and he are forced to flee Luz and her delegation’s insatiable lust for religious dominance.

Complicating Hassan’s position is his queerness, a state of sexuality looked upon with, if not acceptance, then not active disapproval by the Emirate’s rulers which further cements him as an object of evil, a threat to the holy order and one which must be destroyed if Christian Spain is not to be troubled by unholy usurpers.

In the luminous beauty of The Bird King, the relationship enjoyed by Fatima and Hassan is the purest kind of love, one birthed in their respective childhoods and cemented in their older young adult years and saved by fiercely independent Fatima’s tenacious unwillingness to lose the one person she loves and who means anything to her in a world where she has, for the greater part, been nothing but a possession.

G. Willow Wilson (image courtesy official G. Willow Wilson Twitter)

The pellmell rush of Fatima, who is in almost every way the hero of the story, the driver and accidental architect of their flight to freedom and much-delayed self-determination, is an inspiring one, borne aloft by the thrilling action of the fugitive desperately seeking to avoid its would-be captors but infused with a heady exploration of what love and freedom really are.

In the Luz’s small-minded, suffocatingly small and “holy” world, these two terms are rigidly defined and unsparingly enforced; in the rapidly-created new world of Fatima and Hassan, who are as close and devoted as anyone not in a romantic relationship can be, they are entirely another thing, one borne of hope, intimacy, truth and a need to be gloriously, wonderfully free.

In a story laced with many magical elements but still very much a part of the violent realpolitik of the era, Fatima is not supposed to be free and Hassan still a mapmaker, benignly captive to the court and yet, as they race across Spain to freedom in a place of their own avian-imagining, they are alive and open to all kinds of life and love-affirming possibilities.

There are near-misses and close shaves aplenty and the very real chance that the thing they want is the one thing they will never have – like all fairytales, there is a considerable amount of life’s realities coming in to painfully bear upon the heady love of unrestricted freedom and unhindered love – with Wilson making their path to some kind of elusive happiness a touch-and-go proposition much of the time, but through it all there is a giddily inspiring sense of what can be achieved if you simply have enough faith.

Not Luz’s bastardised cruel, nightmarish version of faith, which is as unBiblical as it is violent retributive but rather that possessed by Fatima and Hassan which is pure and beautiful, and which, though severely tested and almost broken, never really gives way.

“For a moment, she was moved: if not for all of this, all of the steel and the quartered arms, the borders drawn and redrawn on maps, they might be something else to each other. Perhaps not friends, but at least not enemies.” P. 276)

So powerful is in fact that it survives temporary but never permanent schisms between the two, the stress and pressure of being endlessly hunted wherever you go, with the peculiar sense of hopelessness that can engender and the harsh realities of a world where the idealised, some might fanciful solution that Fatima and Hassan have in mind, drawn from their mutual love of poetic storytelling, seem ridiculous at best.

A work of exquisite poetry, deeply felt emotion and the inspiring power of gritty in-the-trenches-love to triumph over all, though not without a great amount of difficulty and pain – love, no matter how profound is ever consequences free – and a real, incisive intelligence, The Bird King is that rare gem that is both action-oriented and deeply meaningful all at once.

You can attribute this to vividly-realised characters from Fatima and Hassan down to the cast of other characters who play pivotal roles, good and bad, in the success or otherwise of their journey, a captivating sense of what makes a crackling good story and an insightfulness, not just about humanity but it interacts with power and faith.

The Bird King is mystical and magically beautiful but it is also grounded and real, a book that acknowledges how high the obstacles to true happiness can be but which argues passionately for them to be overcome as it celebrates those people who have the bravery and heart to take such a thanklessly gargantuan task on.

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