Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.
Hassan has a secret–he can draw maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?
As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.
Our tale starts off very slow and more slice of life following Fatima and Hassan’s daily life in the palace. But there’s always an underlying sense of tension since they are under siege, the food is running out, and it’s evident that life will not continue in this vein for much longer. It’s only a matter of time. Even though it’s slow, I did enjoy this section of the novel. It gives us a good understanding of who Fatima and Hassan are and what their places in this world have been up to this point. They’re both outsiders. Despite Fatima having been born in the palace and having the favor of the Emperor, she’s still a servant, a slave, a concubine, and subject to the petty jealousies of the others in the harem. If Hassan’s strange map making gift weren’t enough to set him apart, he’s inherited the looks of his grandmother–a Breton–and prefers the company of other men. They’re both living sort of half lives within the palace, subject to the whims of others above them and kept, not out of love, but for a purpose which only they can provide. This first section of the book slowly reveals their lives to us and then goes on creating an air of uncertainty surrounding the future for our protagonists by reminding us they’re the last remnants of a dying empire.
Once the Castilians show up things finally get moving, and move they do. At that point the pace picks up a lot as Fatima and Hassan flee for their lives from the inquisitor, after Hassan’s accused of sorcery, crossing land and sea. Every time you think they may have made it, there are the Castilians behind them, dogging every step. I do love a good chase, it’s great for keeping the tension high. I found it hard to put the book down then, wondering what would happen, if they would ultimately get away. Besides the chase, the friendship between Hassan and Fatima creates a lot of tension as well. Theirs is a friendship that when tested is fraught with conflict. It’s love, the kind of love that can turn on a dime and become bitter resentment. They love each other, they’re mad at each other–this is an ongoing thing throughout the rest of the story. At times it felt a little trying, but you also can’t help but admire their bond.
With no direction in mind, no where to escape to, they decide to use Hassan’s gift and he draws them a map to an island they’ve only heard about in a story, and an incomplete story at that. If Hassan can imagine a place he can draw his way there, they believe, and so they set out to find this place they’ve only visited in the stories they’ve told each other over the years. A place where birds go, one of every kind, to see the bird king. Helping them flee is a Jinn, Vikram, and sometimes others they meet along the way. They discover what they are capable of, and what they’ll do, in order to survive. The journey is full of peril and near misses, as the Castilians, led by the inquisitor Luz, are determined and unforgiving.
And then something strange happens near the end of the book, after another clash with the Castilians, and it feels like it’s the climax of the novel, but instead things take a turn for the very weird. Now, things were already a little weird because you have Hassan’s strange ability and the presence of Jinn, but when I say they get weird, they get really weird. It’s here that the pace slows again. But then there’s another climax, the final battle as it were, and it’s there that the book wrings every last emotion from you, leaving you a drained husk, a shell of your former self. Or, maybe that was just me. (I cried so much at the end, you guys. So. Much.)
The prose in this book is breathtaking and creates a world that is both lush with imagination and filled with grim reality. I’m not usually one to highlight passages in a book, but I have quite a few quotes highlighted in this one. Since it’s an ARC I won’t share them lest they be changed in the final version, but suffice to say the writing is beautiful and at times quite profound.
The end section, while weird, obviously is trying to convey some deeper meaning. What I got out of it–seeing different people from different backgrounds being able to live side by side to make a life together–brought to mind that wars over things like religion or hating someone over what they look like or who they love is stupid and meaningless. In the end we’re all the same. We’re all The Bird King. 5/5 stars.