The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

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.

Book 6/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

First of all, this is a quick note to say that I am moving house this week so won’t have much time for blogging for a while – there are just so many other things that need to be done! I have prepared and scheduled some posts in advance, so you probably won’t notice any difference, but I might be slow to respond to comments or to catch up with commenting on your blogs. I’m hoping to get settled in quickly so that things can get back to normal, but meanwhile here is my review of one of last month’s reads, The Night Tiger.

***

The Night Tiger was a surprise. I had been drawn to it mainly by the colourful cover and the fact that it was set in Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a country I know very little about, but I didn’t really expect to like it very much. I hadn’t read Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, because the subject didn’t appeal to me, and it sounded as though this book, like that one, would have a very strong magical realism element – and I’m not much of a fan of magical realism. Well, I was wrong about that; although there are times when the story does veer towards the fantastical, most of it is concerned with simply describing the folklore and superstitions of the Chinese people of Malaya and asking us to accept that some of these things may actually be real.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told from two different perspectives. First there’s Ren, an eleven year-old houseboy whose master, Dr MacFarlane, has recently died. While on his deathbed, the doctor asked Ren to carry out a very special task for him: to find his severed finger and bury it in his grave beside his dead body. This must be done within forty-nine days, otherwise Dr MacFarlane’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever. In need of new employment, Ren enters the service of another doctor, William Acton, then begins his quest to locate the missing finger.

Our other main character is Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who has been secretly working in a dance hall in Ipoh to earn the money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. While dancing with a salesman one night, she sees a little glass bottle fall from his pocket and, catching it before it hits the ground, she finds that it contains a shrivelled finger. This gruesome discovery leads Ji Lin to cross paths with Ren and when they each begin to have recurring dreams involving a train journey, it seems that their lives are becoming intertwined in other ways as well.

I enjoyed The Night Tiger much more than I thought I would. The setting is fascinating, of course; I have read two other books set in Malaya (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and The Separation by Dinah Jefferies) but they are very different types of books and don’t explore Chinese and Malaysian myths and legends the way this one does. The folklore surrounding the legend of the weretiger was particularly intriguing; there are hints that one could be responsible for the unexplained deaths that have been occurring around the town, and we can either believe that this is true or we can just believe that the characters in the story believe it is true, if that makes sense!

Both main viewpoint characters are easy to like; I felt closer to Ji Lin, because her story is told in the first person whereas Ren’s is told in the third, but I did love Ren too. He often seems very mature for his age – probably because he has been forced to grow up quickly due to his personal circumstances – but at other times he behaves more like the child he still is.

I’m still not sure whether I want to read The Ghost Bride, but I will look out for Yangsze Choo’s next book and see if it appeals.

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #35: Historical Fantasy

I have just finished writing my review of The Girl in the Tower, the second in Katherine Arden’s fantasy trilogy which began with The Bear and the Nightingale. The trilogy is set in 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as it was called then), a world which has been researched and recreated to resemble the real 14th century Rus’ – apart from the existence of household spirits, frost-demons, firebirds and magical horses. This made me think about other books I’ve read which have both historical and fantasy elements.

First, there are the books I consider to be mainly historical fiction with some elements of magical realism. A good example would be The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, which is set in 17th century Amsterdam but has a supernatural twist in the form of a dolls’ house and a mysterious miniaturist. Another recent read, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is set in Georgian England with only a few brief touches of fantasy, while The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, about a quinine-collecting expedition to Peru, incorporates moving statues and exploding trees. At the other end of the scale there’s The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which takes us to a 16th century India populated with giants and witches, where emperors have imaginary wives and artists hide inside paintings.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (of which I’ve still only read the first one!) is set during the Napoleonic Wars in a world very much as it would have been at the time, with one important difference: dragons exist and are used by both the British and French as a sort of early air force. Another book with the Napoleonic Wars for a setting, one which I read pre-blogging this time, is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I remember loving the mixture of magic and history and the fascinating footnotes describing the world of Faerie.

Then there are Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, which are set in fantasy worlds which resemble real historical worlds. Tigana, my favourite, takes place in a world with one blue moon and one white, but there are clear parallels with Renaissance Italy, while The Lions of Al-Rassan has a setting similar to medieval Spain. The Last Light of the Sun takes us to a land where magical forces gather in the forests and faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, yet this land is identifiable as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. Finally, Children of Earth and Sky is set in thinly-disguised versions of Venice, Dubrovnik and Constantinople during the Renaissance period. These are the only books I have read by Kay so far, but I will certainly be reading more.

How do you feel about fantasy or magical realism combined with historical fiction? Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you recommend more?

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

This is Natasha Pulley’s second novel. I remember seeing lots of very positive reviews of her first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a year or two ago and thinking it sounded interesting. I never got round to reading that book, but when I heard about her new one, The Bedlam Stacks – which sounded just as intriguing – I decided to give it a try.

Set mainly in Peru in 1860, The Bedlam Stacks is narrated by Merrick Tremayne, a former opium smuggler and an expert in botany. Confined to his family estate in Cornwall due to a leg injury, Merrick is trying to come to terms with the fact that he will now have to put his adventuring days behind him and find something else to do with his life. Just as he is beginning to lose hope, his old friend Clem Markham arrives with a request from Merrick’s former employers, the East India Company. To tackle the problem of treating malaria in India, a supply of quinine is urgently needed – and Merrick’s expertise with plants makes him the ideal person to travel with Clem to Peru to take cuttings of the quinine-rich cinchona tree.

At first Merrick is reluctant to agree, knowing that his disability will make it difficult for him to travel through dangerous terrain – not to mention the fact that the Peruvians have a monopoly on the trees and are not about to let anyone else steal them. The alternative, though, is to stay at home and follow his brother’s suggestion of becoming a parson, so it doesn’t take him long to reach a decision! Venturing into the uncharted depths of Peru, Merrick and Clem finally arrive in the holy town of Bedlam, a place where the boundaries between magic and reality begin to merge.

The magical realism elements in The Bedlam Stacks are much more dominant than I had expected. There are moving statues, exploding trees and several other surprises which I will leave you to discover for yourself! This wasn’t really to my taste – I think I would have found it just as enjoyable to read a novel about an expedition to Peru that was based entirely on fact, without the touches of fantasy – but it was certainly imaginative and original. I did love the concept of the Markayuq statues, which apparently really exist and are still found in the countryside in Peru, originally thought to be guarding the villages. Natasha Pulley finds a clever and fascinating way to incorporate these into the story, but again I don’t want to say too much.

The sense of place is very strong – there are some wonderful descriptions of the Peruvian landscape as well as vivid accounts of more practical considerations such as the altitude sickness experienced during the journey – but I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger sense of the time period. Neither Merrick’s narrative voice nor the dialogue between the characters felt convincingly Victorian to me; the choice of words and phrases, the grammar and the structure of sentences just weren’t right for the 19th century. I’m aware, though, that I can be a bit pedantic about anachronistic language used in historical novels and I know it’s not something that bothers everyone!

I did find a lot to enjoy in The Bedlam Stacks, although I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for Natasha Pulley’s books, but I’m still glad I’ve tried this one – even if not everything worked for me, I can understand the appeal!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

A More Diverse Universe I’ve never read anything by Salman Rushdie before and have always felt slightly intimidated by him, but when I was looking for something to read for the A More Diverse Universe blog tour (hosted by Aarti of Booklust) I came across this title on Aarti’s list of suggestions and thought it sounded intriguing.

The Enchantress of Florence is a very imaginative mixture of history and fantasy, with a plot that is almost impossible to describe – though I’ll do my best! The story begins in 16th century India when a mysterious yellow-haired stranger calling himself the Mogor dell’Amore arrives by bullock-cart at the court of the Emperor Akbar in Sikri. Claiming to be related to Akbar, he begins to tell the Emperor the story of the lost Mughal princess, Qara Köz, or Lady Black Eyes, who is captured and after a series of adventures ends up in Florence where she falls in love with the soldier Antonino Argalia. Qara Köz is the enchantress of the title, believed to have powers of sorcery, as well as great beauty, and the entire city of Florence becomes captivated by her presence. In a separate, but connected, storyline we also learn of Argalia’s childhood, growing up in Florence with his friends Ago Vespucci and Il Machia (Niccolò Machiavelli). Will Akbar believe the stories he is told and what effect will they have on the Emperor and his court?

The Enchantress of Florence There are lots of themes and ideas in The Enchantress of Florence and I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all of them. However, one of the main themes, to me, seems to be the power and the magic of storytelling. The novel is made up of lots of separate interlocking stories, not just the three main ones I’ve mentioned above. One character will begin to tell a story and then a character within that story will begin to tell another story and so on, until you almost begin to forget who the original storyteller was and who the listeners are. These stories may or may not be true and all of them are rich in magical realism – we meet the emperor’s favourite wife Jodha, for example, who is imaginary but also seems to have a life of her own; a slave girl who has become a ‘Memory Palace’ (or a device to aid the memory); and an artist hiding inside one of his own paintings.

The fantasy elements and the abundance of princesses, emperors, giants and witches gives the book a fairy tale feel (I was reminded of The Arabian Nights) and there are beautiful, lavish descriptions of both Mughal India and Renaissance Florence, two settings which are very different but also surprisingly alike. I did enjoy this book, especially the sections set in India, and I thought it was beautifully written, but I did find it very complicated and difficult to follow and I think I would probably have needed to read it twice to be able to really appreciate it. People often talk about books having multiple layers, and that’s usually a good thing, but this one has so many layers I was a bit overwhelmed!

I won’t be immediately rushing out to buy the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books but I’m glad I chose to read this one – it was a challenge, but worth the effort, I think.

Touch by Alexi Zentner

In Touch, the debut novel by Alexi Zentner, we follow the story of three generations of one family who live and work in Sawgamet, a small Canadian mining and logging town. Our narrator, Stephen, has just returned to Sawgamet after a long absence because his mother is dying. Back in his childhood home Stephen becomes lost in memories – and shares some of those memories with the reader. Foremost in Stephen’s thoughts is the day his grandfather, Jeannot, came back to the town after disappearing for many years and announced that he had come to “raise the dead”.

With tales of sea witches and creatures that live in the forest, dogs that sing and golden caribou, the line between fantasy and reality often becomes blurred. I’m not always a fan of magical realism but it is done perfectly here, and so is the non-linear narrative which moves seamlessly between past and present.

Sawgamet is one of the most vivid settings I’ve encountered in a book for a long time. I could picture Jeannot’s cabin and mill, the miners panning for gold in the river, the suffocating blankets of snow that buried the landscape during the long cold winters. Enchanting and magical one minute, dark and threatening the next, the atmosphere Zentner created was wonderful. His writing is beautiful and elegant and there are some haunting images that have stayed in my mind even after finishing the book.

As a debut novel I thought Touch was hugely impressive and I’ll certainly be looking out for more work by this author in the future.