Genre : Historical Fantasy
Publisher : Grove Press
Length : 403 pages
Format : eARC
Rating : 3 stars
Publication Date : March 12th 2019
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.
Set in 1491 in Granada, The Bird King is a historical fantasy book following the fall of the last Muslim emirate of Spain. Fatima is one of the many king’s concubines, she’s also a slave: her mother died while giving birth to her shortly after being bought off. She resents the way she’s treated by everyone, for most people, she’s nothing more than a beautiful thing, her worth is similar to the worth of a pretty chair. She knows she could be sold off at any moment if the king found a nicer looking toy to play with. Since she’s a concubine and a slave, she doesn’t have a lot of freedom. However, she’s not going to let that stop her from meeting her one and only friend, Hassan. He is the royal mapmaker and he has a very peculiar talent: he shapes reality when he draws.
Because of his powers, Hassan is seen as a sorcerer, he’s tolerated by the king because his tricks are the only reason the emirate is still standing. However, the Christians are now at the doors of the palace and the king doesn’t really care to protect Hassan anymore. Fatima isn’t going to let her only friend be killed off to appease the court. If saving him means giving up everything she knows, she’s going to do it, no matter the cost.
The moment I heard about this book, I knew I was going to read it. I love historical fantasy books and the setting was very intriguing! I thought the descriptions were wonderful, I could picture the various places, the characters and the tension perfectly. I really liked the scenes set in Granada but I loved the setting at the end of the book even more. I won’t talk about it in details because it would spoil the intrigue of the book but it was a fantastical place full of wonders!
I also loved the characters, Fatima is fascinating, she isn’t a likable character but she doesn’t have any reasons to be either. She was ignored and hated by a lot of people in the palace and, because of that, she can sometimes appears rash and selfish. However, she’s a complex and layered character, I loved slowly discovering her personality. She’s full of contradictions but she’s not stupid by any means. She made the most of each moment she had as a slave: she speaks different langages, she’s educated and she’s interested by the world outside the palace. She’s also very fierce and she wants to protect her friend as much as possible.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Hassan because he spent a lot of his time complaining but he was also interesting. He and Fatima were very different but they a great dynamic, you could see their friendship on the page, I especially enjoyed the stories they tell each other about The Bird King, the uncompleted poem they heard about when they were children. I also liked the fact that their relationship was strictly platonic, Hassan isn’t into women so he doesn’t see Fatima as a pretty thing.
However, as much as I was really interested by the characters and the setting, I really struggled with the pacing of the book. I like slow character-driven stories, like The Dollmaker by Nina Allan, however, as much as I like them, this was sloooooooow. More than half of the book is about Fatima and Hassan being pursued by their enemies and it didn’t held my attention for long. I found myself reading and re-reading the same parts because my brain wasn’t focusing at all. After a while, I started to skim the descriptions to only read the dialogues. The descriptions were nice but not particularly interesting or relevant to the plot during this part of the story.
It was a bit frustrating because I loved a lot of aspects but the pacing didn’t work for me at all… However, I think I have an unpopular opinion on this one, I read a couple of reviews and no one seems to find the pacing weird. If you’re intrigued by this book, don’t let my review deter you! It had very interesting elements and themes and even if it didn’t end up working for me, I could see a lot of people liking it. I would still read other works by G. Willow Wilson.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Netgalley and Grove Press. All opinions are my own.