We’re so excited to announce The Bird King as BuzzFeed Book Club’s May pick! G. Willow Wilson’s sprawling, fantastical novel takes place during the reign of the last sultan of Muslim Iberia, focusing on a concubine named Fatima and her best friend Hassan. The two have a dangerous secret — Hassan, the palace mapmaker, can draw maps that bend reality — and when Fatima accidentally reveals this to a woman from the newly formed Spanish monarchy, she puts her and Hassan’s lives at risk.
Read an excerpt below, and join us next month as we dive into the book — posing questions, sharing opinions, and interacting directly with author G. Willow Wilson.
“Choose a bird,” said Fatima. It was the way all their conversations went now: The palace, rambling as it was, had grown cramped under siege, the air perpetually stale with the shut-up breath of a hundred half-starved mouths. Every conversation became an argument. It was safer to retreat into the games of their childhood, as they did more and more; into the stories of creatures that could fly away.
Fatima returned to her patch of sun on the balustrade.
“A bird,” she repeated.
Hassan chewed for a moment before answering.
“Red-crested pochard,” he said triumphantly. Fatima laughed at him.
“That’s not a real bird,” she said. “You’re just being an idiot.” “It is so a real bird! It’s a sort of duck, a waterbird. We used to have them on my mother’s land, near the lake. Hunters would come to trap them in the fall.” In the course of their game, they had long ago run through all the ordinary birds, and had since moved on to more exotic ones.
“Very well,” said Fatima. “The pochard, the pochard—since he has a bright crest, perhaps he was vain, and when the other birds sought him out to accompany them on their journey across the Dark Sea to the mountain of Qaf, he refused. Why should he leave his home, where everyone flattered him and he could spend all day preening? The people of Qaf might not appreciate his plumage as they ought to do. But the hoopoe—”
“Ah yes, the hoopoe is my favorite.”
“The hoopoe, who also had a lovely red crest, scolded the pochard for his shallowness.”
“I don’t know.” Fatima yawned. The effort of thinking too hard in bright sunlight had begun to tire her. “But surely something silly enough to be called a pochard wouldn’t survive such a long journey. Make me a new map. I want a view.”
“A view,” muttered Hassan. “You’ve got lovely views already. Look at this view! Look at the fork-tailed swallows flying low across the reflecting pool! At night, you can see a second field of stars in the water. Enjoy it now, Fa, for soon it’ll all belong to Castile.”
“Will you make me a map or not?” she demanded.
“Yes, of course I will. A map. A view.” Hassan wiped his hands on his coat and sat down at his worktable, a low, scuffed oak plank balanced on two stacks of books. Fatima knelt beside him. She liked to look at his face while he worked, to see it transformed by the fervent, vacant light that possessed him as his maps took shape. His lips would part in an eager smile, like a child’s; there was a bliss about him when he worked and when he prayed that made Fatima wonder whether he knew what it felt like to have one’s faith in the goodness of things removed. Fatima herself had never knelt upon a prayer mat except grudgingly. Obedience was demanded of her all day and on many nights; when she was asked to pray, she had no more left in her. Hassan was different. His obedience was always rewarded; whatever force he called upon in his silent moments always answered him, and though the maidservants might giggle and the undersecretaries scowl when he passed, he did not appear to notice.
Hassan was the only person she allowed herself to watch so openly. It gave her a stealthy joy to sit beside him and try to translate the lively conversation between his brows, and know he neither minded nor misread her. He saw her looking now and smiled absently, reaching out to stroke her jaw with one finger. He took out a charcoal pencil and whittled it with a small knife, removing a fragment of paper from one of the untidy stacks on his desk. His fingers — the length and suppleness of which almost redeemed his awkward features — moved quickly across the page, defining the right angles of a short hallway, the nautilus-shell progression of a flight of stairs.
“This is the way you came,” said Hassan. His pencil rasped and shed black ash. “This is a door. It leads off the small antechamber in the harem where the washerwoman keeps her baskets and soap. That is the door you want.”
Fatima teased the map from beneath his fingers and slipped it into the embroidered V at the front of her tunic, against her skin. Hassan watched her and sighed.
“You’re wasted on me,” he said. “God’s names, look at you.” He took her hands in his and turned her to face the sun. “Look.”
Fatima smiled. She was not above admiring herself. Her eyes were so black and unflawed that they swallowed the afternoon light without reflecting anything, like a night without stars. They floated in a face whose pallor might make another girl look sickly. There was no high color in her lips or cheeks of the kind the poets praised: Her beauty was something too remote for poetry, a tilting symmetry of jaw and cheekbone and dark brow. Only her hair seemed to be made of anything earthly: It billowed over her shoulders in a mass of dense sable curls that snapped the teeth of every comb Lady Aisha had ever taken to them.
She was the last reminder of a time of prosperity, when pretty girls could be had from Italian slave merchants for unearthly sums; there had been no money and no victories since. The Nasrid sultans, heirs to the empire of Al Andalus, to the foothold of Islam in Europe, seemed to have few talents beyond losing the territories won by their forefathers. They preferred beauty to war: They had built the Alhambra, every brightly tiled inch of which represented the lifework of some master craftsman. That was all Al Andalus was now: an empire indoors. A palace, and inside it a garden, and inside that, a beautiful girl.
“Men would risk their fortunes for an hour in bed with you,” said Hassan, letting her arms drop.
“You risk your fortune for my company,” said Fatima. “I love you better than I would love those other men.”
Hassan leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with charcoal-blackened fingers.
“You’re a good friend to me, Fa. Friends are rare these days. But you’ve got to be more careful. Laughter carries in the Court of Myrtles, and a woman’s laughter most of all. It may carry all the way to the sultan’s quarters — and then what?”
Fatima shrugged. “The sultan knows what you are.”
“Still, I’m not allowed to speak to you alone. It doesn’t look proper. And there is a vizier coming in half an hour who wants a map of the Castilian military encampment at Rejana. So.” He pressed a kiss into the palm of her hand. “Go look at your view.”
Fatima touched the map beneath her shirt: It crackled under her fingers. “What kind of view is it?” she asked. “Is it very pretty? Is it possible to see the sea from there?”
Hassan was bent over his work again.
“The sea is miles and miles to the south, across the mountains,” he muttered. “Not even I can give you a view like that.”
Fatima left the way she had come. There were no guards posted in the Court of Myrtles, situated as it was near the heart of the palace, away from the bustle and heat of the Mexuar, where the sultan heard petitions with his viziers and lawyers and secretaries. Yet it was summer, and the black-green bushes for which the courtyard was named were in full bloom, attracting a throng of beardless students set loose from their daily lessons. Fatima could see their skullcaps bobbing above the flowery hedge. She pressed herself against a pillar in the arched colonnade that framed the veranda and held her breath.
There was a volley of laughter from among the myrtles. One of the students began to recite his lesson, half singing a few rhymed verses of the aqeeda in an unsteady tenor. Other voices joined his, growing softer as the students drifted away toward the shade of the interior rooms.
Fatima pressed her cheek against the tepid stone and forced herself to relax. The door by which she had entered the courtyard stood nearby: It was not quite closed, so that she would make no noise when she returned. She passed through it on light feet and shut it behind her. The hall was plunged into darkness. She felt her way by memory, breathing the austere reek of dust and disuse, until she came to a meager strip of light on the ground that signaled the door to the harem’s antechamber. Here she paused. No noise came from beyond it, no footfall interrupted the light beneath it. Fatima found the latch with her hands and pushed the door open. The antechamber was just as Hassan had described it, though Fatima had trouble imagining why he had ever set foot there himself: Buckets and rags were piled in one whitewashed corner along with stoppered jugs of vinegar and a tub of congealed soap. An arched passage tiled in blue and gold led to the common room of the harem itself. All these things were familiar. The small door set in the right-hand wall was not.
The door was half of Fatima’s height and whitewashed, like the walls; a crossbeam cut across it diagonally, giving the impression of a cupboard or closet. She opened it, expecting stacks of bed linen. Instead she saw a flight of narrow stone stairs. Grinning to herself, Fatima ducked through the door, ascending the steps two at a time, pleased by the soft scuffing noise her feet made on the flecked stone. The edge of each step was worn to a fine polish, as if the staircase had been traversed by hundreds of pairs of feet, yet there was no sound save from her own movements, no hint that anyone else was near.
There was strong light coming from somewhere; squinting upward, Fatima thought she saw a window or perhaps an empty arch. She put one hand on the wall — wide blocks of red-brown stone, in all respects a proper old wall like all the proper walls of the old palace — and crept along, stepping gingerly on each unknown surface until she reached the top. Her last step was only a half step: There were an odd number of stairs, which pleased her. They ended in a sort of parapet, a small, square tower room with a narrow window in each wall. Fatima picked one and stuck her head out.
She was greeted by a blast of wind. It smelled of dry hay and cold water: The summer heat would not last much longer. Fatima took several deep breaths, enjoying her own dizziness, blinking in the sharp-shadowed afternoon as the objects below her resolved themselves. She was in a southeast corner of the palace. Her window overlooked the low roof of the Mexuar and the wide lawn beyond, burned yellow now as it always was by summer’s end. The hill spilled away beneath it, cloaked in dark elms, tapering off at the smoke-clad medina in the valley below. There were the red-tiled roofs of villas; the cramped knot of houses that formed the Juderia. She could see tiny green squares of garden in innumerable courtyards; below these, in the lap of the valley, the shallow river that supplied them.
In the distance, where the ground flattened out, there was the wide plain of the Vega de Granada, smudged here and there with plumes of smoke and dotted with the skeletal remains of siege engines. Beyond these human outworks were the shoulders of the mountains that receded south in a humid haze, as ambivalent toward their Catholic rulers as they had been toward their Muslim ones, their pelt of pines and grasses unfurling toward a pale and factionless sky. They ended in nothing, for Fatima’s knowledge of the world did not extend as far as the sea. Yet standing there, she thought she detected the faint, damp scent of salt carried on the wind from the south. Hassan had tried his best.
Fatima pulled her head back inside with a feeling of regret. Lady Aisha had undoubtedly awoken by now and gone to bathe; her bondswoman’s absence would be noted. She turned away from the window and hurried down the echoless stairs, her footfall landing strangely in her ears, emphatic, like a kind of speech. At the bottom, she lifted the latch on the little unassuming door and passed through, shutting it behind her as softly as she could.
She stood on tiptoe in the antechamber with Hassan’s map in her hands. If she misplaced it, she would forget: The location of the door would grow indistinct in her memory, and she would confuse it with other doors that led to other rooms. She had, on occasion, attempted to find her way back to the places Hassan marked for her without a map, and inevitably got herself turned around or found familiar rooms rendered suddenly alien. It was unpleasant to be lost in your own house. She did not intend to repeat the experience.
Fatima folded the map and tore it along the crease, then folded it and tore it again, until she was left with a pile of tiny fragments. These she let flutter to the ground. Straightening, she smoothed her tunic and trousers, setting off down the tiled hallway that led into the harem itself. She did not look back: She knew well enough what she would see. The wall would fold up without a sound, as if it was made of ether, and the door would vanish, leaving no trace of itself but motes of dust suspended in the light. ●
G. Willow Wilson is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Alif the Unseen, the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, and the graphic novels Cairo, Air, and Vixen. She co-created the celebrated comic book series Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, winner of the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, and recently debuted as writer of the Wonder Woman comics. She currently lives in Seattle.