Escape From the Empire

In G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, a concubine, a djinn, and a mapmaker with a secret set out for a fragile new world.

G. Willow Wilson next to Alhambra and a drawing of a map.
G. Willow Wilson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Samia and Jebulon/Wikipedia.

“Associations with sunset and the fall of the leaf linger in romance,” the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye wrote. By “romance,” he meant not stories of courtship but the literary genre of chivalric romance, in which a knight sets out on a quest through a landscape populated by magical animal helpers and wicked sorcerers. The fantasy fiction of our time—however far it may have wandered from relating the feats of Sir Galahad—still owes a lot to those medieval tales; so does every pop-culture deployment of Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey.” You can detect the melancholy tinge Frye describes in modern fantasy’s urtext, The Lord of the Rings, that massive elegy for a more enchanted world as it’s on the cusp of fading away. Contemporary fantasy authors are more likely to write against Tolkien than they are to pay tribute to him, but sometimes the most piquant works are a mixture of both. The Bird King, G. Willow Wilson’s sumptuous second novel (after 2012’s Alif the Unseen), is also set in the last days of a golden age, complete with fanatical barbarians at the gates, preparing to sweep up its glories into their loot sacks.

The empire, Al Andalus, consisted of the greater part of what we now call Spain, a territory under Muslim rule for more than seven centuries. It was a cultured, cosmopolitan realm. The arts, particularly architecture, flourished there, as did scholarship, philosophy, and religious tolerance. When The Bird King begins, however, it’s 1491, and the Reconquista is on the verge of completion. All that’s left of Al Andalus is the emirate of Granada, where Wilson’s main character, a concubine named Fatima, lives in the Alhambra, as part of the sultan’s harem. The armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are demanding that Granada be surrendered. Accompanying the Castilian generals is Luz, a former aristocrat turned Dominican lay sister and agent of the Inquisition. She has a dulcet manner and her own personal kit of interrogation tools. (There’s a lot of Philip Pullman’s terrifying, golden-haired Mrs. Coulter in Luz.)

Wilson conjures the legendary beauty of the Alhambra (“The golden hour bloomed around them, yellowing the myrtle hedge, the grass, the marble paths, the long reflecting pool that pointed through the courtyard toward the administrative wing of the palace”), but she doesn’t sentimentalize Al Andalus. Fatima regards its fall, and the prospect of exile in Morocco, almost indifferently. The daughter of a Circassian captive and a slave herself, pampered but unfree. “You have pretty clothes, entertainments, food when others go hungry,” the sultan complains, exasperated by her discontent. She’s not especially pious, having “never knelt upon a prayer mat except grudgingly. Obedience was demanded of her all day and on many nights: when she was asked to pray, she had no more left in her.” But when Fatima inadvertently exposes a secret about her best friend, Hassan, the sultan’s mapmaker, the two of them are forced to flee, with Luz and her minions on their heels.

Hassan’s secret is this: His maps can reshape reality, adding doors, rooms, and passageways where they did not exist before. When Luz finds out about this, she demands that the “sorcerer” be handed over to the Inquisition for “questioning” as part of the surrender treaty, a prospect that seems doubly horrifying should they discover Hassan’s affairs with other men. The sultan’s mother sends the fugitives off under the care of Vikram the Vampire, a scabrous, shape-shifting djinn who also appears in Alif the Unseen. Their destination: an island they read about in a poem—the celebrated 12th-century Persian epic The Conference of the Birdsalthough their copy of it was missing the ending. Nevertheless, with one of Hassan’s magical maps in hand, Fatima believes she and her friend can find sanctuary under the protection of the fabled King of the Birds.

Wilson is best known for writing comics, particularly a series of Ms. Marvel featuring a teenage Muslim heroine and, most recently, Wonder Woman. The Bird King, more than Alif the Unseen, shows the influence of conventional pop storytelling. 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. “You were taught to waste your anger,” Vikram tells Fatima. “It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous.” When the sultan speculates that his empire failed because “we’ve given everyone too much freedom. Our poets write odes to their male lovers. My mother spent half her fortune on a university for heretics and alchemists. Muslims and Jews and Christians mingle and live alongside each other, and here we are—weak and indulgent, just as the Castilians say,” Fatima replies: “Maybe they don’t hate us for our freedoms. Maybe they hate us because we’ve been harrying their lands for decades.” The point would be pretty hard for anyone who remembers the aftermath of 9/11 to miss.

These 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, with its hacker hero hiding out from his authoritarian government in the legendary city of the djinn. As mad as that scenario sounds, Alif the Unseen felt like a dispatch from the front, a place where the border between technology and magic had dissolved. This is what it’s like to live here, now, Wilson, a Cairo resident, seemed to be telling her readers, which is always more compelling than someone telling you how life ought to be.

Fortunately, Fatima is a stubborn creature who mistrusts all ideologues: “If Luz was right, she would be punished for failing to acknowledge that God had a son; if the imam who grumbled from the minbar in the royal mosque was right, she would be punished for even considering such a proposition. Belief never seemed to enter into anything: it was simply a matter of selecting the correct system of enticements.” She is the moral center of the novel, and all she wants to do is get away from it all with Hassan. The Bird King offers a rare portrayal of a platonic love fiercer than any of its erotic counterparts. Unlike Hassan, Fatima has no magical powers, but like her friend, she has talents that went to waste back in Granada and will blossom on the road. She brings to The Bird King an elemental dignity that the hero of Alif lacked. Along the way, the pair pick up some unlikely companions—a Breton monk, a doctor from Timbuktu, a Cornish laundress, and even a handful of misfit djinn. Whether or not they can succeed in building a fragile form of paradise together, Wilson leaves no doubt that there are few things—in this world or the next—more worth fighting for.

The Bird King

By G. Willow Wilson. Grove Press.