“God bless the man who first taught the world how to cure olives. He and the man who invented cheese are two unsung pillars of civilization.”
“They were probably women,” muttered Fatima, fanning her face with the sleeve of her robe. “If they were men, we would remember their names.”
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel about a concubine, a gay Muslim “sorcerer” (for lack of a better word), and a jinn fleeing the Inquisition after the fall of Granada. It’s good!
The strength of this book is its main characters. Fatima (the concubine) is a strong, angry, beautiful, conflicted woman, with complicated emotions that she doesn’t fully understand. Hassan (the gay Muslim “sorcerer”) is a charming, funny, innocent person full of love. And the jinn is a jinn, mysterious and vaguely dangerous. I came to care a lot about these characters, so much so that the book took me forever to read because I was so anxious about their struggles. I dreaded something bad happening to them!
Unfortunately, the other characters in the book are not as developed, particularly those that are introduced later in the story. Even the main antagonist feels more like a vague sketch of an idea rather than a realistic portrayal of a person.
The novel is generally paced well, with the action moving briskly while also devoting enough “down-time” to let the characters interact with each other and breathe a little bit. The last third of book felt a little rushed, though. A whole bunch of characters are introduced but are underdeveloped. Major plot stuff happens, but with barely any explanation. To be fair, the author appeared to be trying to communicate complicated thoughts, themes, and emotions that are ineffable. Metaphor and vague explanations might have been the best way to communicate them, but nevertheless the back third of the novel felt so significantly different from what came before that it was jarring.
While the book contains elements of a historical fantasy action-adventure, it’s also a literary exploration of feminine power, the nature of faith, good and evil, and love. The only book I’ve read that is sort of similar is The Bear and the Nightingale, but that book reads slightly more like a fairy tale than this one.
I recommend this book to anybody looking for something a little out-of-the-ordinary. It’s got unique characters, an under-explored setting, and an action-adventure with an underpinning of philosophy and religion. It’s good stuff.
My rating: 4 stars