G. Willow Wilson talks blending history, faith, and magic in The Bird King
It’s a big month for writer G. Willow Wilson. After co-creating the popular young Muslim superhero Kamala Khan five years ago, Wilson just published her final issue of Ms. Marvel, handing the character off to writer Saladin Ahmed for the foreseeable future. Later this month, she’ll begin a new creator-owned science-fiction comic called Invisible Kingdom (alongside artist Christian Ward) and is still writing DC’s twice-monthly Wonder Woman comic. But in between ending and beginning these comics, Wilson has also returned to novels with The Bird King.
Blending history and myth, The Bird King begins in Muslim Spain, where the last sultan of the Empire of Al Andalus is preparing to meet with emissaries from the Catholic armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The sultan has been able to survive this long because of the reality-bending powers of his royal mapmaker Hassan, but the nascent Spanish Inquisition is intent on wiping out Hassan’s magic as part of their Reconquista — wait. Before we go further, question: Did you, dear reader, even know there was such a place as “Muslim Spain”? Given how often European nationalism is played against Muslim religion and culture these days, you might be forgiven for not being aware of how intertwined they once were.
“Today we tend to think of ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslim world’ as two separate worlds, when in fact there is no hard line between those cultures and ideologies,” Wilson tells EW. “For hundreds of years, all the way through 1492, large swaths of what we now know as Spain were under Muslim rule, and were home to a flowering of dialogue between the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Wilson continues, “It’s interesting because a lot of Westerners, Europeans and particularly Americans, are not aware this blended period ever existed. It’s not something we study at school, it’s not something we’re familiar with. I bet if you came up to the average American or Canadian on the street and asked ‘did you know that Spain was functionally a Muslim country for over 500 years?’ They would be shocked and think you were crazy. It was appealing to me to write during a time period where being European and being a Muslim were not necessarily considered separate ideas, and when the conversation occurring between religions and cultures was a lot less fraught and had a lot more depth. Though at the period I’m writing in the book, that period has pretty much fallen apart, and the Reconquista has taken back all of Spain except for this one city in the south called Granada. That’s the last city of what was once this great empire called Al Andalus, which was then the Arabic name for the Iberian Peninsula.”
This period is known as the Islamic Golden Age but, as Wilson notes, no golden age is ever as rosy as it may seem in retrospect. The Bird King’s protagonist, Fatima, certainly doesn’t feel like she’s living in a golden age. As one of the sultan’s concubines, Fatima has only ever known a life of sexual servitude. She’s tired of being acted upon; she wants to be the driving force in her own life. So with the Inquisition on her doorstep, she flees with Hassan in search of the legendary island of the Bird King. Their quest is inspired by The Conference of the Birds, a real-life Sufi text. Fatima and Hassan have read fragments of it, so all they know of the story is birds going on a quest to find their missing king. But they have no idea how the story ends or what it might mean for them.
Fatima is beautiful and graceful. As a result, along their journey, many characters (some human, some demon) offer her help. But she’s the hero here, not a damsel, and often has to explain that to the men in her life.
“Fatima has no interest in being saved,” Wilson says. “She’s really not interested in conforming to anybody’s particular narrative of what she represents and what she should be doing, and is extremely defiant of stereotypes and expectations, and has no interest in taking sides. Her priority is to save the people that she cares about, and she’s really not interested in anybody’s help if it means conforming to their expectations of her.”
Fatima and Hassan’s relationship is the driving force of the book, but The Bird King differs from many romantic fantasy epics in that their connection is not a sexual one. Hassan is gay, which is another reason he’s seen as a heretic and deviant by the powers that be. Fatima isn’t sexually interested in Hassan either (she has plenty of suitors as is), but they do love each other with a fierceness that powers them past all kinds of obstacles.
“When I sat down to write The Bird King, I really wanted to tell a platonic love story. Typically when we see a historical drama or any kind of drama, the centerpiece is often a heterosexual romance — which is great, it’s just that there are a million of them. In this case, I wanted to explore a different kind of love,” Wilson says. “I wanted the chance to explore a love story that was non-traditional, that would allow me to get into a very different kind of love which we all feel. We all have those incredibly close passionate friendships that are not sexual but are a huge part of our lives. Whether it’s your best friend from high school who you’ve been through thick and thin with, a sibling you’ve weathered the ups and downs of life with, or a co-creator on an artistic project who you’ve worked with for years — those relationships too are massive parts of our emotional lives, yet they often take a backseat to romantic and sexual relationships in fiction. I really wanted a book with a relationship like that at the middle, as opposed to a traditional romance.”
Fatima’s other main relationship in the book is more adversarial. That’s with Luz, who first appears as one of the Catholic emissaries sent to the Alhambra to negotiate peace but is really a powerful, scheming member of the Inquisition. She and Fatima fascinate each other, and as the book goes on they develop a cat-and-mouse relationship as Luz is determined to hunt down these two people who don’t conform to her vision of how the world should be.
“They’re very much opposites. Luz is really symbolic of what I think we today would call ‘imperial feminism,'” Wilson says. “With Luz, I wanted to have a powerful, complicated, interesting female villain that would offer a discussion of differing visions of what it means to be a ‘powerful woman,’ because power and goodness do not go hand in hand necessarily. You can be powerful and really evil! It was a really interesting way to create a counterpoint for Fatima, who mirrors her: She’s ambitious, she doesn’t fit in to her particular society. Unlike Fatima, her solution is to take all the worst parts of the male power she perceives around her for herself. She’s not interested in being more just or more peaceful or spreading equality. She wants everybody under her boot, and she honestly thinks that everyone will be happier that way because she is right, and if everyone accepts that then everything will be fine.”
The Bird King hits stores this week from Grove Atlantic.