Seattle author G. Willow Wilson's new novel, The Bird King, takes place at the very inception of the nation we now know as Spain. It begins as Christian leaders from the north, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, send emissaries to the southern part of the country to seize land from the Muslim sultan who is consistently losing power — "master of an empire that no longer exists," as one character puts it.
Readers like myself who graduated from a fairly apathetic public school system might be surprised to learn that the Empire of Al Andalus once flourished in the borders of modern Spain, that European history is not strictly a Christian affair. The Bird King is Wilson's attempt to reclaim that history by mythologizing it — by adding a layer of fantasy over the forgotten past, to revive it and reinvigorate the history for new audiences through fiction.
The Bird King is the story of Fatima, a concubine whose life begins and ends within the palace walls. We learn early on in the book that she never even has worn a real pair of shoes. Fatima is close friends with Hassan, a young mapmaker who is revered within the royal court, even as he is feared for his secrets. Hassan is gay, and his desires are silently tolerated because he practices a very powerful form of magic: he can will distinct changes onto the maps he draws — secret passages, bizarre new routes that never seemed possible before — thereby reimagining the world. Most mapmakers try to capture reality in their maps; Hassan's maps shape reality into their own image.
Soon enough, Hassan and Fatima are on the run from the Spanish Inquisition, allied with a mischievous jinn named Vikram the Vampire. (Regular readers of Wilson's fiction will recognize Vikram as a character from her debut novel, Alif the Unseen, but no prior knowledge is necessary to understand his presence here.) As they go, they discuss The Conference of the Birds, an epic Persian poem about birds who journey across seven valleys which represent common human failings. Wilson explains:
The birds, forever quarreling with each other, had long been without a ruler, and gathered together in their meeting place to decide what must be done. The hoopoe, wisest among them, urged the rest of put aside their differences, and rallying the hawks and owls and sparrows and ravens, set off to the land of Qaf to find their lost king.
The birds' story begins to influence Fatima and Hassan's journey in complex ways, until finally it's impossible to separate one narrative from another.
Wilson also offers time to Fatima's pursuer, a woman from the kingdom of northern Spain named Luz who enters into the story under the pretense of friendship. Even as Luz betrays Hassan's secret mapmaking magic to the Christians, she can't shake her respect for Fatima. A witness describes Fatima to Luz:
"She was a slattern," spat the man. "Out on her own, hair loose, dressed in a fancy man's robe. Not a respectable lady like you, my lady. I could never feel pity for a girl like that. She was probably a Moor, even pale as she was. She had hair like a Moor's. They say they're all feebleminded, the ones that come from south of the Great Desert, no more than animals some of them—"
Luz can't bear to hear this man's tirade against Fatima:
"That is a vicious lie," said Luz calmly. "There is an empire south of the Great Desert larger than any in Europe. The best doctors in the world are trained at its capital. All they lack is faith. If ignorant men like you would not stand in our way, sir, perhaps we could bring it to them."
It's a holy war, but one of grudging respect.
The Bird King is a story of flight in every sense of the word. One of the most remarkable qualities of the book is the way that Wilson allows the characters to take their time, to exult in the journey more than the destination. It's not a slow-moving book, but it is a deliberate one. The pacing is generous, allowing the reader to get comfortable with the characters in a variety of situations. For those who only know Wilson through her zippier commercial comics work, this sense of deliberation might take some time to adjust to, but its rewards are many.
It's no mistake that The Bird King is set in the year 1491. Coming one year before Columbus's voyage to the so-called New World, 1491 is the last year in which the possibilities presented by the map were boundless. Europeans in Spain and across Europe had no real idea what was out beyond the expanses of ocean, where puckish mapmakers drew serpents and warned of monsters. The colonization and subjugation of native cultures hadn't yet begun in the Americas, and so everything was a possibility. In 1491, Europe's greatest sins were yet to happen.
And it's no coincidence that one of the central characters of The Bird King is a mapmaker who can change the world through sheer acts of imagination. By resurrecting the past and repopulating it with her own characters, Wilson is reminding readers of that sense of possibility, of the idea that destiny is something that can be coaxed and inspired into something better. Even on land that we've mapped down to the last square inch, there are still discoveries to be made.
But eventually even the most talented mapmaker in the world runs out of paper and loses direction. It's in this way that The Bird King eventually develops into a story about faith. Wilson's work continually investigates the idea of what it means to believe in something outside your own control, and The Bird King represents perhaps her purest and most compelling investigation of faith yet. The point when you let go of your senses and trust the story to guide you, Wilson argues, is when you truly find your way.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant