Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : March 12, 2019

Publisher : Grove Press

HAPPY MONDAY! Following in Emory’s footsteps, I’m starting off my review with a synopsis provided by the publisher:

Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret—he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His magical gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime and entertained a bored Fatima who has never stepped foot outside the palace walls.

When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, little realizing that her new friend Luz represents the Inquisition, and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With everything on the line, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan, and taste the freedom she has never known.

Y’all. This book…. was SO GOOD. Wilson (author of Alif the Unseen and a series of the Captain Marvel comics) blends medieval historical fiction with adventure fantasy and the end result is a truly magical book. It has the expected elements of dangerous politics, government spies, religious oppression, and secret identities, but Wilson also adds something so special to the story through her prose and the characters she’s created.

Fatima is an a m a z i n g character. She is stubborn and fierce and acts as the moral center of the novel for most of the story, and her bravery never seems to waver throughout the book – and there are a lot of instances where that bravery is tested. Whenever she was facing a hardship or being tested, I always found myself looking forward to how she would react, because she’s such a strong character. I felt like I never had to worry too much, because of course Fatima was going to be all right. I loved loved loved her as a character so much.

At the beginning of the book, Fatima spends most of her time escaping her reality for made up ones – something she can literally achieve due to her friendship with Hassan, who can create new realities for both of them. by drawing maps that come to life. Much of their inspiration for the stories they make up come from the pages they have of Farid ud-Din Al Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (which plays a very significant role at the end. Like seriously, the ending of this book is G R E A T). And this is another thing I really, really loved about this book – the fact that Fatima and Hassan spend their time together taking brief respites into fake worlds, only to end up having to escape their lives for real in the hopes of finding a happiness that has eluded them so far.

The friendship between Fatima and Hassan was the strongest point of the entire novel for me. They bond with each other over the limits of their freedom – Fatima is limited by her role as a concubine, and Hassan by his queerness. Their status as outsiders is what draws them to each other initially, but the the care and concern that they feel for each other is clear. When Hassan is put in danger, you can viscerally feel Fatima’s fear over it. Their platonic love for each other is so beautifully written, and I don’t really have the words to describe just how much I appreciate Wilson creating these two characters and the journey they go on with each other, and for each other.

If this book wasn’t already amazing enough, the side characters are all brilliantly written as well, whether they are friends, foes, or someone in-between. Perhaps one of the coolest characters in the book is the vampire djinn Vikram, who helps Fatima and Hassan escape Luz and the Inquisition. And the introduction of the fourth member of their group – the monk Gwennec – is one of my favorites, seeing as he just so happens to be on the boat that they steal, inadvertently bringing him in to join them on their escape. Even Luz, arguably the villain of the novel, is so well written, and is such an intriguing character.

There is so much to admire about this book, and one of the highlights is how Wilson tackles the theme of perspective and choice. The book is full of characters who choose who their family is, and who choose where their loyalties lie, despite having bonds or duties to other people or institutions. Religion and politics play such a huge role in the novel, and Wilson spins a beautiful and almost tragic message of how the world is sometimes what our perspective makes it out to be. There is never just one real world with one set of truths, and Fatima and Hassan’s journey throughout the story proves that to not only themselves, but to the reader as well.

The Bird King is Wilson’s second full length novel, and I think I can say it is a wild success. It hits so many marks – the characters are fleshed out and interesting, the plot is complicated and thrilling and keeps you on your toes, and the language is beautiful and vivid. I really can’t say enough good things about the story. It is one of the books that you don’t want to put down because it is so good, but you also don’t want it to ever end, so you try to pace yourself so you can stay in the world just a little bit longer. At its core, The Bird King is a story about stories, and about how they have the power to both hinder us or free us, depending on what we choose to take from them.

-Sara

My rating:

10 Map-Drawn Realities out of 10

Book Review | Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Book 1, by Diana Wynne Jones

Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : 1977
Publisher : Macmillan Publishers

Now that September is here (even if it is still 85 degrees in DC), I found myself wanting to read a book for this week’s review that made me think of Autumn. I was browsing my bookshelf when the perfect book jumped out at me – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chronicles of Chrestomanci. With the first book being published in 1977, this series is long overdue for the recognition it so richly deserves, and I always find myself going back to it just to spend some time in the world that Jones created. If you haven’t read the series before, please go to your nearest local bookstore and grab it because w o w it is such an underrated and beautiful story!!!

As Jones explains on an introductory page, “There are thousands of worlds , all different from ours. Chrestomanci’s world is the one next door to us, and the difference here is that magic is as common as music is with us.” In book one, Charmed Life, not only is there magic, there are also castles, dopplegangers (kind of??? it’s complicated, okay?), apple picking, good and evil witches/warlocks, cats that used to be fiddles, necromancers, fabulous outfits, and so much more! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I can promise that you will love every second.

The basic plot of the book is as follows: Siblings Cat and Gwendolen Chant are orphaned after a freak boating accident, and are sent to live with Mrs. Sharp, a local witch who can only do the most basic of spells. This is a source of ridicule for Gwendolen – who has some crazy powerful magic – and she spends much of the early pages of the novel turning her nose up at Mrs. Sharp. Her magic, which she is learning to hone under the tutelage of the clearly nefarious Nostrum brothers – soon attracts the attention of Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter there is. Soon enough, both Gwendolen and Cat are sent off to Chrestomanci Castle, and that is where things really get interesting.

The whole book is told through Cat’s point of view, giving the story a sort of naïveté that can only be accomplished when told through the eyes of a young boy. What’s even more interesting is that, for most of the story, Cat has no desire to be the center of attention, or to even be noticed at all! And whenever someone does focus their attention on him, Cat usually turns into a flustered mess. The POV also accomplishes adding a lot of mystery and tension to the story, because the readers, along with Cat, have no idea what Gwendolen is really up to, but just like Cat, we keep hoping for a happy ending even if all the warning signs are there. And when one of the major plot twists happen – I can’t even hint at what it is, it would give too much away!!! – the readers are just as surprised and heartbroken as Cat.

The world as a whole is made up of amazing characters, and you find yourself growing attached to everyone, even if you only spend a couple of pages with them. The crux of the book is built upon Cat and Gwendolen’s relationship. From the very first page, Jones lets you know that Cat clings to Gwendolen because he has no one else left. There are times where their relationship seems like the typical sibling relationship – like when Gwendolen uses her magic to levitate wall mirrors for them to fly around on when Cat is feeling down – but then there are times when Gwendolen is so terribly cruel to Cat that you can’t understand why he stays by her side. But then you remember that she’s all he has – which makes some of her choices all the more repulsive. And that’s also why Gwendolen trying and usually failing to go up against Chrestomanci in a battle of wits, sarcasm, and magical prowess, is so satisfying.

“She said Mr. Nostrum would give his eyes for your letters.”

Has Mr. Nostrum given his eyes for my letters?” asked Chrestomanci. “It hardly seems worth it.”

“No. He just gave Gwendolen lessons for them,” said Cat.

“What? For his eyes? How uncomfortable!” said Chrestomanci.

Chapter 2, page 28

Chrestomanci is one of the best literary characters ever created. There. I’ve said it. And while several versions of him appear throughout Jones’ series, the iteration of him in Charmed Life is my favorite. For most of the book, he spends most of his time suddenly appearing without warning, always dressed to the nines (usual in floral dressing gowns of varying colors) and in a seemingly constant state of bewilderment and confusion. And honestly…. that’s a mood. The level of sarcasm he achieves is also astounding, and he has one-liners throughout the book that have stuck with me for years, and are always enjoyable to revisit. Jones does an amazing job of slowly revealing more and more of Chrestomanci’s backstory and history of the course of the book, and by the end, ties up so many questions and things I was wondering about in the most satisfying way.

I wish I could talk more about the plot of the book, but I don’t want to give anything away, because if you are reading it for the first time, it’s so important to go in with no spoilers. I remember the first time I read it, I was so unsure of who the good guys were, and what everyone’s true motives were. So I refuse to spoil even the tiniest thing. All you need to know is that Gwendolen does not have good time at Chrestomanci Castle, and she makes sure everyone knows that by performing spells that bring a reign of terror to the castle, and everyone inside of it. For real, she does some spooky shit, and Jones does a great job of showing how greed and power can drive someone to do terrible things.

But Jones also shows us that there will always be people who make it their duty to stand up to those terrible things. And that – along with many, many other things – is why I love this book so much, and why I think it still holds up as such an amazing story. Because sometimes we need that reassurance that there is always someone looking out for the well-being of the world. Or, in this case, all of the worlds that are out there. And then there’s also the fact that Chronicles of Chrestomanci as a whole is just so damn cool and magical and everything that a fantasy fiction fan could ever want. If you’ve read the series, tell me about how much you love it! If you haven’t, then what are some of your favorite fantasy reads that only get better with age?

My rating:

10 Fancy Dressing Gowns out of 10.

-Sara