The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
I thought this book started out really strong.
It starts in Granada in 1492, on the eve of its fall to the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. The main character is Fatima, a concubine – raised for her entire life in the palace to serve the sultan in his bed, but she wants more. She wants agency. Her best friend – her only friend – is Hassan, a gay map-maker whose sexuality is overlooked by all because he has an incredible power: he can bend geography to his will by drawing a map of how he wishes things were. This has helped the Moors get out of many a sticky situation in their clashes with the Spanish, but alas, it is not enough to forestall their inevitable defeat. Granada is under siege with no real prospect of turning their situation around. The only thing left to do is negotiate the terms of their surrender.
The Spanish send a delegation to Granada, and among them is the real villain of the piece – Luz. Initially, Fatima likes Luz and wants to make a good impression on her – an urge she retains quite a way into the book, actually, even at a point where you’d think she would not. Tasked with taking Luz on a tour of the palace, she takes Luz to her “favourite place”: the part where Hassan draws his maps. This immediately rouses Luz’s interest, and shortly afterwards, the sultan tells Fatima the terms of the surrender he’s agreed to: among them, Hassan is to be handed over to the Spanish Inquisition.
Fatima cannot abide by this, so she fetches Hassan and they make a daring escape. Most of the book is them desperately trying to flee their enemies, pursued doggedly by the Inquisitors, Luz at their head.
The characterisation, I thought, was really good. Fatima is such an engaging character, and her dynamics with the other characters – especially Hassan, the sultan, and Luz – were all pretty fascinating. One thing I appreciated about this book is that even though it has a historical setting, the characters feel relatable from my modern perspective. And after all, why not? Throughout all of history there absolutely have been gay people and people having extramarital sex and women struggling so hard to establish an independent identity for themselves despite the patriarchal societies they lived in. What’s actually ahistorical is to pretend such people never existed. So, as a historical novel I found this pretty refreshing.
The main problems this book had were that it’s really too long-winded and it just had one too many “major dramatic clash with the enemy!” → “oh good we got away” cycles for me. At about the three-quarter mark, there was a really gripping, climactic confrontation with the enemy and then after that there were 40 pages of like… very little conflict whatsoever (I mean there was Fatima and Hassan getting pissy with each other over jealousy I guess) as we treaded water until the “real” climax. It just felt like a let-down. I docked this book half a star over that; I’d been going to give it four stars before.
Despite my disappointment with the ending, I did think this was an enjoyable book and I am glad I read it. It felt similar in vibe to the City of Brass trilogy, which I adored, so that’s a good thing. I just wish it had been wrapped up better.