I loved this book so much. Fatima and Hassan's relationship is such a visceral portrait of the friendships developed under duress ... Every character is full and rich, whether ally or enemy or something in-between; I especially appreciated how Luz, a female Inquisitor, seems genuinely to love the cultures she seeks to destroy, and how successfully compelling is her horrible fanaticism. The Bird King is also, to put it mildly, gorgeously written. My copy has doubled in thickness from dog-earing pages I wanted to transcribe portions from or write essays around. I hate that "luminous prose" is such a cliché, because Wilson's sentences are, in fact, full of light ... [The book is] deeply beautiful and wondrously sad, and I can't tell if it ended too quickly or if I just needed it not to — if I just wanted to dwell in a home built out of story for a little longer yet.
An adept writer of historical fiction, Wilson relies less on period detail than on vivid, multisensory description ... brilliantly reimagines the fall of Muslim Granada to the same superpower that prosecuted the Inquisition and colonized the Western Hemisphere. Although told from the point of view of a young woman considered chattel, it’s not merely a critique of imperialism or patriarchy. For one thing, it’s too funny ... A warm, generous spirit underlies the entire novel ... maintains a delicate balance between holding Fatima’s world in high regard, looking at it critically and finding its moments of humor, all the while revealing its many resemblances to the world as it exists today.
... sumptuous ... Wilson conjures the legendary beauty of the Alhambra... but she doesn’t sentimentalize Al Andalus ... The pacing of Fatima and Hassan’s escape—essentially one long chase scene—is brisk and flawless, but there’s a lot of message delivery going on whenever the novel hits a quiet spot ... [Its] leaden moments don’t sink The Bird King, and Wilson is far from alone in feeling the need for them. We live in an anxious and therefore lecturesome age, surrounded by daily reminders how easily and perhaps willfully others will misinterpret our words if we don’t make them dully obvious. But too many life lessons can sap some of the life from a novel, which is why The Bird King doesn’t quite attain the vitality of Alif the Unseen ... The Bird King offers a rare portrayal of a platonic love fiercer than any of its erotic counterparts.
A metatextual bildungsroman about religion, war, and love, The Bird King enriches the genre of historical fantasy. And yet, as with many novels that are rich in ideas and allusions, it raises more issues than it has time to address. Its many tantalizing questions...are neglected in favor of thrilling escapes and other adventure elements ... Nonetheless, Wilson has given us much to think about and invited us to refresh our knowledge of medieval Spain at a crucial moment in world history. This is what good fantasy should do, after all: offer us alternative worlds that, no matter how fantastic, turn the mirror back on ourselves.
... an enchanting historical fantasy adventure that combines an unconventional love story with a thoughtful exploration of faith and religious tolerance ... Although there is plenty of earthy banter along the way, Wilson relates [Vikram's] narrative with a spare lyricism that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, in a style that more closely resembles an exotic fairy tale than the elaborate world-building and magical lore of much fantasy fiction ... Moving beyond simplistic conceptions of good versus evil, The Bird King is ultimately a story of acceptance of self and others. It’s precisely the kind of fable we need right now.
This is a novel that thoughtfully contemplates the meaning of love, power, religion, and freedom. But even while exploring all of these heavy issues, this is a fun, immersive adventure that moves at a brisk pace through lush settings, across dangerous terrain, and eventually out to the open sea. This ultimately life-affirming tale of a young woman who rejects her dismal fate and creates her own family will appeal to readers of S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, and Naomi Novik’s fairy tale-esque Uprooted.
... G. Willow Wilson whips up a head-spinning blend of realism, fantasy and history ... And indeed, life in the palace is evocatively sketched. But the chase grows tiresome, stretching on for so long that the reader may begin to wonder why Fatima and Hassan are so important to bag. The novel comes perilously close to reading like an action film, complete with the perfect villain, Luz, with a strange, terrifying splotch on her eye ... Fatima and Hassan’s arduous, sometimes cartoonishly violent journey makes this an uneven book, though a deeply imaginative ending – set on an island that may have sprung from Hassan’s mind – redeems the travel-worn story.
In no way does this setting render the novel less intriguing and accessible, though, even to younger readers ... Wilson’s engaging characters quickly earn our sympathy ... Wilson never skimps on the action to meditate on the novel’s religious themes, but the contrasts of worldviews, between Muslim and Christian, between monastic faith and Inquisitorial thuggishness, between legend and history, between different kinds of belief, are never far from the surface ... The notion of viewing the same mysterious island from the dual perspectives of Christian and Islamic legend is perhaps Wilson’s neatest thematic trick in the novel ... Wilson brings off an impressive narrative high-wire act that neatly balances the contrasting worldviews with a few conventions of literary fantasy ... will easily satisfy most readers with its fabulous adventures and intriguing characters – I wouldn’t mind meeting Vikram again sometime – it’s also a deeply thoughtful novel about how the world is what our perspectives make it.
Despite its enchanting otherworldly trappings, it is primarily a novel of ideas. It grapples with who we are, how we love, why we worship, and why a world of co-existence—perhaps even of Convivencia—seems so far beyond our reach ... prose so vivid and original that one can only read it with envy.
With her debut novel, Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson announced herself as a powerful new voice in the realm of speculative fiction. With her new novel, The Bird King, she has cemented her place as one of the brightest lights of fantasy storytelling ... Wilson’s tale unfolds with all the grace and swiftness of a classic magical adventure, with strange encounters and new lands waiting with each turn of the page. There’s a familiarity, a lived-in quality, to the prose and sense of character that evokes an almost fairy-tale sensibility, but then Wilson digs deeper, into something as timeless as a myth but much more intimate. As it spreads out before the reader like a lavish tapestry, Wilson’s story becomes a gorgeous, ambitious meditation on faith, platonic love, magic and even storytelling itself, with a trio of unforgettable personalities serving as its beating, endlessly vital heart ... a triumph—immersive in historical detail and yet, in many ways, it could have happened yesterday. Wilson has once again proven that she’s one of the best fantasy writers working today, with a book that’s just waiting for readers to get happily lost in its pages.
Through Fatima and Hassan’s complementary world-making strategies—one narrative and mythical, the other cartographical—Wilson reveals the limits of orthodoxy and the violence of calcified belief, opening up spaces for an exciting critique of war, power, religion, and history. The Bird King is an important, magical story of a world in which Islam and Christianity contend for global dominance and offers a vibrant reconsideration of the individual’s place in the global circulations of power in the post-9/11 world.
Wilson again rises to impressive new heights ... 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 ... But there is a hefty dose of humor, too, amid these ornate corridors of history and philosophy ... 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.
The Bird King is an utterly lovely reading experience. It ensorcelled me completely. I don’t expect to read another book like it for many years, if ever ... four hundred pages of pure, genuine enchantment. I cried when The Bird King was over. The ending contained sorrow, but I was mostly upset because there was no more of the novel to read. I would have been satisfied to read this narrative for years. No summary, no quotes, no analysis of this book can communicate the all-encompassing pleasure of reading it, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Read it, and treasure it.
The Bird King is an exquisite fantasy about the end of Muslim sovereignty in the West, the power of desire to disrupt and transform, and how the privilege of naming can reshape the world ... Author G. Willow Wilson writes with a masterful control of perspective. The Bird King is a perfect novel, balancing universal themes and conflicting cultures with eloquently delivered landscape, character, and dialogue. The Bird King is a unique fantasy that combines history with magic, creating an imaginary map of a world that has been lost to time.
Although the writing is beautiful and the character interactions are sharply drawn, the structure of the plot is more diffuse than it might have been ... It’s hard to escape the feeling that Wilson herself had difficulty articulating what the Bird King represents in this novel. The intended meaning might be clearer to those who are familiar with The Conference of the Birds, the 12th century Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar that inspired and shaped this book ... The Bird King is a beautiful read, paying fine attention to the natural environment and the nuances of the characters’ interactions. Some authors who take up prose fiction after working in comics neglect the strengths of the medium—poetic description, physical experience, and interiority—but not Wilson.
With The Bird King she tries to create a new kind of retelling, one that introduces reality as a bit of color to a largely fantastical tale. It’s the fantasy that provides all the texture and grit: the story is not about how a few magic individuals fit within a larger historical setting, but how a historical setting brings into relief what are ultimately mystical and fantastical truths. It’s a very smart approach, and it’s one I appreciate even if I don’t fully believe that it succeeds ... The Bird King teeters on the edge of rendering Fatima and Hassan superfluous to their own story at certain points, since the battles are largely fought and won by supernatural entities, not human determination or ingenuity. But even when the human characters get to display their talents, they risk undoing the narrative with overpowered magic ... Wilson lavishes her attention on those inner struggles, and so the solutions are more elegant, more powerful than the instances of escape or combat. It’s clear that Wilson is trying to get at very profound themes, and by and large she succeeds on this level. Certainly the emotional core of the novel remains powerful throughout. Though it stumbles, then, The Bird King is a powerful parable of acceptance, difference, and empowerment.
A lovely fable ... The worldbuilding is well-constructed but is primarily a support for Wilson’s chief focus on character, specifically on Fatima’s growing understanding of the nature of freedom and responsibility. Wilson also delicately explores the nature of a love outside the physical through the complex and very genuine relationship shared by Fatima and Hassan. And she has some interesting things to imply about the nature of evil ... A thoughtful and beautiful balance between the real and the fantastic.