The Bird King
If The Bird King were a food, it would be homemade bread, a yeasty, crusty whole wheat, with nuts in it: hearty, solid, homey. Something you eat to be practical, because you know it'll sustain you.
The setting is a well-researched historical Iberia. It’s 1492 and Isabella and Ferdinand’s Inquisition is sweeping the peninsula like a grass fire. Of course, not much of that appears in the book. The specific settings are mostly small-scale, often cloistered sections of this historical society: the harem of the last sultan of Grenada, under siege; the Spanish countryside as seen in flight, on foot; a small boat; inside the tent of a general of the Inquisition; the boat again. The most expansive and realized setting is the final location, the island of the Bird King, which does not appear on any historical map of Iberia.
The characters are charming and relatable while still seeming authentic to their context; my favorite is, of course, Hassan, the delicate queer mapmaker whose portrayal felt like seeing a real queer ancestor through the years. The plot is in some ways standard fantasy fare, and is engaging and immersive. I enjoyed Fatima’s personal transformation as much or more than I enjoyed the fights, the torture scenes, and the political maneuvering—this is a fairly internal book, not so much an epic war novel.
I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the pacing of the book, and also about the weird way it ends, and I’ve got to say that those things are my favorite things about it. This is a book about the end of an empire, about the end of a time of (relative) peace and safety as the world slides into fire and blood. And this is where Wilson’s creativity really shines through, because while this story feels in many ways like a traditional historical fantasy novel, her answer to the question of how to live through this kind of cataclysmic event is much different from any other fantasy novel I’ve read before.
This is emphatically not a quest to fight into the heart of the attacking enemy to assassinate Queen Isabella of Spain. The idea of starting up some kind of guerrilla warfare in the hills around Grenada in order to defend the people threatened by the Inquisition literally never comes up. Fatima transforms, profoundly and powerfully, but not by learning how to fence, disguising herself in the court of her enemy and throwing a wrench on the machinery of the empire.
Instead, something else happens. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it is both far stranger than that—and also more realistic. The Bird King is a book you can believe in, a map through a time of trouble trying to show us the way home.