After several years writing comic books, the author of World Fantasy Award–winning novel Alif the Unseen (2012) returns to long-form fiction with a lovely fable sent during the final days of the Reconquista.
Restless, angry 17-year-old Fatima has had a relatively cosseted existence as a slave in the Alhambra palace harem, serving the sultan of Granada as his favorite concubine and his mother as her close companion. But as the sultan prepares to surrender his lands to Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of the recently united Spain, all that is thrown into upheaval when Fatima inadvertently betrays her beloved friend Hassan to the Inquisition, which believes him to be a sorcerer. In fact, Hassan is a gay cartographer with a narrow but powerful magic: He can create new shortcuts between places with his maps as well as draw locations he has never seen, including some which don’t become real until he draws them. Fatima and Hassan make a desperate escape, aided by capricious jinn, but the Inquisition seems always to be just behind them. Their only possible refuge might lie in the fragment of an old poem the two companions have pored over since childhood, about the mysterious island of Qaf, hidden refuge of the king of birds. The worldbuilding is well-constructed but is primarily a support for Wilson’s chief focus on character, specifically on Fatima’s growing understanding of the nature of freedom and responsibility. Wilson also delicately explores the nature of a love outside the physical through the complex and very genuine relationship shared by Fatima and Hassan. And she has some interesting things to imply about the nature of evil, particularly how it’s personified through Luz, the Dominican lay sister who serves as an Inquisitor for the Holy Office. Partway through the story, Luz becomes possessed by a dark creature personified as a mote in her eye; it might be simpler to believe that it’s the mote that goads her toward torment and murder, but she joined the Inquisition and carried with her the implements of torture long before the possession. She has the potential to become a better person, but future deeds can’t really blot out her past ones.
A thoughtful and beautiful balance between the real and the fantastic.