In the 12th century poem The Conference of the Birds, the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Al Attar writes about a group of birds, left without a ruler, who set off on a long journey across the Dark Sea to the land of Qaf in search of their lost king. This legend forms the basis of G Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, an unusual novel which combines history, fantasy, myth and magical realism.
The novel is set in Al-Andalus in 1491, when Muslim-ruled Granada is besieged by the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Our heroine, Fatima, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the Alhambra palace, where she serves as concubine to the Sultan and maid to his mother, Lady Aisha. Fatima’s only real friend in the palace is Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who possesses a very special skill: he is able to draw maps of places he has never visited and to change reality by adding doors and passages where none existed before.
When representatives of the Spanish Inquisition arrive in Granada on behalf of Queen Isabella, Hassan’s secret ability is revealed and he falls under suspicion as a sorcerer. With the help of Hassan’s magical maps and guided by Vikram, a shape-shifting jinn, Hassan and Fatima flee across Al-Andalus. Knowing that there is no longer a place for them in the world they have left behind, they dream of finding the fabled island of Qaf and the King of the Birds, whose story is starting to feel more and more relevant.
The Bird King is a novel which encompasses lots of fascinating ideas. I’m not sure whether I fully understood everything it was trying to say – the last few chapters feel particularly allegorical – but the central messages of friendship and faith, of tolerance and living together in harmony are clear. The author delivers these messages in a way that seems to arise naturally from the plot and the characters and doesn’t become too heavy-handed. I also loved the concept that the mysterious Qaf could be seen as another version of Avalon in Arthurian legend, or Antillia, the phantom island of Iberian myth, or Shambhala, the mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhism: different names, but with similar meanings to people of different cultures.
G. Willow Wilson’s writing is beautiful in places and the settings are vividly described, especially the Alhambra in the opening chapters, but something stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to – and I’m not really sure what it was. Perhaps it was because I found the balance between the fantasy and the historical aspects of the book too uneven; it starts off as an interesting depiction of the fall of Granada and the Inquisition, with only a small amount of magical realism, but by the end of the book the fantasy elements have become so strong that I felt I was reading a different book to the one I was reading at the beginning. Then, although I liked Fatima, I thought the other characters seemed slightly underdeveloped; Hassan’s special gift had the potential to be explored further and I also wanted to know more about Vikram the jinn and his role in the human world.
Still, this is an intriguing and entertaining novel and I would probably read more by G. Willow Wilson. Her previous novel, Alif the Unseen, doesn’t appeal to me but I will look out for any others she writes in the future.