A review of
The Bird King:
G. Willow Wilson
Hardback: Grove Atlantic, 2019
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Reviewed by Sam Edgin
I’ve been in a book club for the last two years. I joined because I read a lot, and never felt like I talked enough about what I read. Read what other people want to read, I told myself, and you’ll get to talk about it. So I did. And I learned first that it’s unique for a guy to be in an all-guys book club. Those, oddly, aren’t commonplace. This particular book club has a unique way of pitching and picking: each month, one of the guys picks a book from five choices pitched anonymously by the other members. This is also unusual, so I have learned. It somehow also tends to result in us fighting through the most unexpectedly awful books (never, never, never read Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road). But I also get to read plenty of books that I would never normally pick up. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and Justice by Michael Sandel were wonderful cross-training for my fiction-loving brain.
Because of what we’ve read, and the differing opinions we run aground on, I’ve realized that the books that I love most are the ones that have more that say that just the words on their pages. I want my books to stick around, nagging me like a fly on a still, humid summer afternoon. I want to think about the world around me through the lens of narrative. It is here, where the ideas that make up our days and nights become alive in the words printed on a page, that we discover perspective, empathy, and potential. The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson, is concerned with exactly this.
Wilson, a Muslim woman currently from Seattle, is known best for creating Kamala Khan, a Marvel Comics superhero who balances being a teenager in a conservative Muslim family with saving her hometown of Jersey City from all manner of threats as Ms. Marvel, the shapeshifting Inhuman. Wilson won the Hugo award for her work on Ms. Marvel, and the character has been a hit – a new superhero who accomplished the rare feat of rising in popularity from amongst the crowd of heroes who have been around for generations. Kamala’s story is one that has always been defined by herself. In a world that loves little more than it loves to label, Kamala’s faith and ideals shape her far more than any label someone else might give. “Good is not who you are,” Kamala narrates in Ms. Marvel #5 “It’s what you do.”
In The Bird King, Wilson returns to characters who are rarely seen beyond their labels. Fatima is a slave, the favored concubine of the Sultan of Granada. Hassan, her dearest friend, is gay, fervently devout, and wields a mystical power that allows him to draw a map of anywhere, and to bring to reality anything he draws. These two find themselves in the midst of the fall of Granada to the Spanish, who bring with them the Inquisition, which fears and reviles Hassan. They flee Granada with a shape-shifting jinn, and eventually take to the ocean with a Breton Monk named Gwennec, all in search of the Mystical island of Qaf. In Qaf they seek the Bird King, a mysterious and powerful figure they know from a story of which they only have read half.
About three quarters of the way into the book, Fatima asks Vikram, the jinn who is sometimes man and sometimes dog, why the mystical island they have found themselves on is abandoned. He replies, “Do you think I know everything? I imagine they died from failure of imagination. They probably tried to build a road into that forest and never came out… This place… it isn’t a place at all. Only an idea with a location.” In The Bird King, we see ideas taking physical form constantly. Doors and rooms that never were become real when drawn on a map, monsters emerge from fear and impatience, stray dogs become guiding jinn. All things become, all things are becoming. The substance of the ideas may not have the weight of the means through which they become, but they all become. They are guided, for the characters here, by a stubborn self reliance and an unwavering faith in an idea.
For Fatima, Hassan, and Gwennec this idea is Qaf, a mysterious island where they are certain they will be safe, free of those who want to dictate and control. What we learn, through fear and storm and uncertainty, is that Qaf only is because of the unwavering faith Fatima and Hassan have in their friendship, from which the Qaf they find was born. In stories told over many years Qaf became their home of possibility – the place where the Bird King offered hope to all who needed refuge. The Bird King, they discover once on Qaf, is them. They make their own safety and happiness there, with each other.
Willow Wilson has always touched that tender spot of closeness that sits next to our hearts. In Ms. Marvel, Kamela’s power lies not as much in her ability to “Embiggen” – to change the size of her body at will – but always lies in her affection for the family and friends around her and theirs for her. In The Bird King, Hassan and Fatima’s strength (and eventually Gwennec’s) comes from the same place. Qaf is abandoned until they arrive, but their arrival brings more people to the island, and the rarely come alone, always the wayward come with that in which they have faith. Even when their pursuer, the Inquisition’s indomitable Luz, arrives she brings with her that which she has faith – an evil mass that seeks to dominate and destroy, and one which masqueraded as holiness for her. It was once seen as only a speck in her eye, and upon realizing that her faith was misplaced, Luz sets off the save the island, asking those who remain to put some measure of faith in her.
I always have small issues with stories that insist on a vague almost-divinity that is found in the depths of an individual’s “true self”. Wilson flirts with that idea a little too much here. The grand reveal of the book insists that “we are all the Bird King.” My issue is less with the self-discovered divinity, and more with its vagueness. There are multiple religious traditions that Wilson has to work with: two forms of Christianity, Islam, and a fanciful mystical paganism. I selfishly wish that the identity of the Bird King were given theological heft. Instead, the Bird King is removed from all the traditions, its locus placed into the heart of the individual.
Minor selfish gripes be damned, Wilson has woven a tale that illustrates how imagination and faith can intertwine to give us hope when we feel like all hope has slipped away. Carried with this new hope is a story of redemption for all, even those who we feel most deserve torment. The Bird King, in much the same vein as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, shows that sometimes our best lessons are learned from tales of wonder and adventure. Give a story wings, and it will carry you away.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com