On My Bookshelf: The Bird King

The Bird King

Readers here know that I perk up with the mention, and especially the practice of religion in the fiction I read. How do authors and their characters approach God? How does it affect the narrative of the story? 

The Bird King lies somewhere near a boundary between historical fiction and fantasy. The setting is 1491, and the sun is setting on Muslim civilization in Granada. Two young friends, slaves in the last sultan’s court, fall into a shared adventure on the run from the Inquisition.

The Church is interested because the young mapmaker is a wizard of sorts, when he draws invented places on paper, he makes them real: doors, passageways, valleys, jumps across space like Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseract. Childhood games between friends in hidden rooms has been replaced with impossible retreats for the sultan’s military, and later, invented trap doors to facilitate escape from a besieged palace. Such work is evil, of course, and it matters little that the Holy Office itself is under the influence of the demonic.

On foot and by sea, they meet a Dominican friar who turns sympathetic to their flight from capture, torture, rape, and death. Two mysterious jinn also assist in their quest to avoid captivity find a mythological island of peace and rest in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Can the mapmaker draw such a place into reality? 

So, about religion … There are externals that exist, and Islam and Christianity both look like cultural things for people more than spiritual or religious practices. Though the monk’s story of conversion is present, it doesn’t involve a real deepening for him. It’s the initial human infatuation that he acts on to join religious life. He’s also infatuated with the young freedwoman, and he acts on that impulse, too.

The supernatural elements are two: the mapmaking wizardry and the jinn who appear first in the book as a palace dog and a stray cat. The former is the element of fantasy. The latter pick up on Muslim belief in supernatural beings who shift in shape, engage in banter with humans, and enjoy trickery and subterfuge.

As a novel, superbly written, well-plotted, very visual, and offers a good series of escapes from danger. Just when you think it’s hopeless it’s not, and when you think the hunted are safe, they fall into danger almost immediately. The friendships are presented well, adding to the characterization of the young protagonists who, though all in their late teens, do not really inhabit a YA book. Or maybe it’s on the boundary between that and an adult novel, whatever those categories might mean.

It’s a good read, right up to the end.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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