Acclaimed for her work in comics, G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel) is also a formidable force in prose. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen, received the World Fantasy Award and the PNBA Book Award, and was listed as a 2012 Best Book in many periodicals. With The Bird King, Wilson again rises to impressive new heights.
Set amid shifting political landscapes of the late 15th century, this gripping fantasy captures a desperate act of resistance in the face of an imposing new empire. Fatima is the favored concubine of an Iberian sultan; nevertheless, she is lonely but for the platonic affection of the royal cartographer, Hassan. The friends while away hours together in the palace, conjuring new installments for the long, unfinished story of the Bird King, the avian ruler who set out for paradise and never returned.
Their languid days reach an abrupt end, however, when emissaries from Christian Spain arrive to demand the Muslim ruler's surrender. General Gonzalo and the lay-sister Luz may have come in peace on a mission from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but the Catholic claim on this kingdom is firm and unflinching. Defiance would mean answering to the ominous Inquisition.
Headstrong Fatima, then, is on thin ice as it is. But when Hassan's mystical gift for making maps that bend reality, and his taste for other men, come to Luz's attention, the friends flee for the paradise they have long imagined.
To say Wilson is a talented storyteller does not adequately capture the magnificent dimensions of her work. The adventure at hand is a riveting escape through worlds seen and unseen, with high stakes and near-misses, toward a freedom neither Fatima nor Hassan are sure they entirely believe in. Faith is all they have--besides one another. To that end, Wilson's characters are both rich and fallible, disrupting the spectrum of heroes and villains. The Bird King considers how power can corrupt virtue, and how easily corruption can be mistaken for piety. "Some ideas are so beautiful that even evil people believe in them," says one disillusioned sage. "But I've come to realize that I must share God with the things that God has set askew." It's an insight with startling relevance for times as uncertain as the 21st century.
But there is a hefty dose of humor, too, amid these ornate corridors of history and philosophy. Vikram the Vampire, sharp-tongued anti-hero from Alif the Unseen, emerges as Fatima and Hassan's reluctant guide through the wilderness. Although he would just as soon eat his charges as lead them, the jinn's presence firmly establishes Wilson's second novel as wildly entertaining.
Whether it's the grand arena of clashing empires or a humble prayer mat in a quiet room, Wilson pays close attention to the gentle nuances of her subjects. Friendship and devotion are at the center of her focus in The Bird King, a more-than-worthy follow-up to Alif the Unseen. It's not necessary to read one before the other, but only a fool would miss them both. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Shelf Talker: Two servants of the sultan flee rather than surrender to the Inquisition in a breathtaking historical fantasy from the acclaimed G. Willow Wilson.