The Bird King

It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous. If you want to live, you must learn to use your anger for your own benefit, not the benefit of those who would turn it against you.

The Bird King, a new fantasy novel from G. Willow Wilson (of Alif the Unseen and Ms. Marvel fame), combines history and the fantastical to produce an exciting and lyrical story set in Andalus in 1491. Our hero is Fatima, the sultan’s concubine, who was born and raised in the palace at Granada, the last remaining emirate. She has never left its walls. Hassan, the mapmaker, is her best friend and has a special ability. He can draw maps of places he’s never been to, and, even more intriguing, he can draw a map that changes the shape of the physical reality around him. When representatives from the Spanish Inquisition come knocking at the door, Fatima has to make a decision about the meaning of love and freedom.

That is when the adventure begins: there are chases and boats and folklore, and our main characters are helped (or not) by a cast of characters: human, jinn, and animal.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, and I really loved parts of it. I loved the way it combined historical fiction with fantastical elements; I loved its feminist message. I loved its exploration of how we make homes for ourselves and what freedom looks like. The early part of the novel, the part that took place at court, was my favorite. My appreciation waned as the novel went on, however, because I found the middle really slow and the ending anticlimactic. Where the story was going wasn’t obvious from the beginning; the book was working up to it. But the reveal came too late, the characters took too long to get to their end point, and the ending was a little muddled for me. I realize that’s very vague, but: spoilers.

I think this is definitely worth a read for readers who like fantasy or are interested in that period of history. If you’ve read or are planning to, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐/5

Find it here: Goodreads | Grove Atlantic | Amazon.com

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and Edelweiss for an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Elsewhere, Home

I absolutely loved this collection of short stories about people who straddle cultures or homes in different countries and how difficult that is. Some of the stories deal with major life events, but others are about quiet, everyday moments and how being half this and half that and living half here and half there affects even those moments. The majority of the characters are Egyptian or Sudanese women living in England or Scotland. 

This is a must-read book for expats, third-culture kids, or anyone who dreads being asked “Where are you from?” But it also speaks to the way that all of us struggle with belonging, especially when we’re between belonging to our family completely and forging out on our own. 

“Summer Maze” is my favorite story, and it is the closest words on a page have ever come to mirroring my life. It follows an English daughter and her Egyptian mother as they travel to Cairo to spend the summer. It was the little things in this story that got to me: the crazy amounts of luggage Egyptians travel with, the weird, almost surreal relationships you forge with relatives you see only once a year, and being able to order whatever you want at Pizza Hut because the meat is all halal. The story is told first from the daughter’s point of view and then from the mother’s. It’s about expectations, but it’s also about each woman being torn in half by their mixed identities and double homes. There is a poignant moment where the daughter is delighted to see an English couple and hear their accent while sightseeing because she is feeling rather homesick. But when she finally catches their eyes, they see an Egyptian girl. They are surprised by her English and compliment her on it. She belongs to many identities, but none of those identities accept her into their fold fully. Her mother, meanwhile, is as homeless as her daughter: by leaving Egypt, she has fallen behind the times and the culture, and her sister tells her, that’s not how we do it anymore. By leaving home, she lost touch with it, but she doesn’t quite belong to the new place either.

My other favorites were “The Boy from the Kebab Shop” (about a non-practicing Muslim student who meets a boy at a fundraiser and starts to rethink her life) and “Pages of Fruit” (a woman’s second-person narration to a writer she spends years admiring).

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Find it here: Goodreads | Grove Atlantic | Amazon.com | Book Depository