Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (Magonia #1)
Published April 28, 2015 by HarperCollins, 320 pp.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring YA debut is a fiercely intelligent, multilayered fantasy where Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies.
Aza Ray Boyle is drowning in thin air. Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.
Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?
You know, I actually find this quite messy and all over the place, like there’s so much going on you don’t know where to focus. Kind of like a sensory overload, but put into words. Oddly enough, I do like this – it’s unique, richly imagined, and transports you to a whole different world. Well, not really – just one above our own that we have no idea exists.
Magonia takes you along Aza Ray’s journey – from sickly teenager on the brink of death, to long-lost daughter of a captain of a Magonian ship, and then to a fugitive from Magonian authorities. It’s quite a big leap Aza takes, but then again nothing has been normal in her life so far. With her lungs unable to process air, she’s more often in the hospital than not, and when she does die, it’s when she’s getting airlifted to a hospital and it crashes. Instead of getting buried, however, she wakes up on a ship in the sky, feeling better than ever and no trace of the disease that’s plagued her all her life. While the crew expects her to adjust immediately, her heart is left back on Earth – with her family and her best friend, Jason. Before long, she finds out that the fate of Magonia rests on her song, and that her real mother may not have wanted her back for purely sentimental reasons.
This book is such an interesting mix of genres – there’s a bit of sci-fi, fantasy, even mythology thrown into Magonia. At times it overwhelmed me because coupled with the writing style, it’s a bit much to take in. You do get used to it as you read, and I felt it conveyed Aza’s and Jason’s thoughts well. I’m including Jason because this is told in dual POV – Jason on Earth, Aza while she’s up in the clouds.
Seriously, this book doesn’t make sense at first, but I like to think as the book goes on it makes more sense, and once you do finish it, it feels like you’ve seen the light. This is written well, no question about it, even if it does get a bit confusing at times. While there are a couple of familiar themes – girl is The One, girl has two possible love lines, there’s a war and only she can stop or end it – I think this does stand out from other YA fantasy books, just for the different genres crammed into this (kind of like The Falconer).
At first, Aza and Jason are just friends, but just before Aza is about to turn 16, Jason confesses. Or at least tries to – he hands her a note with brackets and parentheses and I’m left to fill in the blanks. Is this supposed to say “I like you”? Jason please, not all of us share the bond you have with Aza – but I think this perfectly illustrates the bond the two of them have. They’re two misfits, they’re each other’s only friend, and they have their own world. As the book goes along I think Jason becomes one of my favorite boys because he’s the one that doesn’t give up looking for Aza. He knows she’s still out there, and she’s alive.
There’s pressure on my neck and there’s still no pain. There’s a splitting, something falling off, and that feeling of a rope around my chest, and my body is halfway on the gurney and halfway with me, standing up, watching.
“I’ll find you,” Jason says, and I hear him. I hear him. I trust him.”
I do think, though, that Aza’s voice is drowned out most of the time, like she’s dragged around by what’s happening around her, and she can barely get her bearings. Between her inability to process the air on Earth, her being ordered around on the ship, and just her overall lack of choice in everything she does, I feel like I don’t really know her as a person. I felt like her moments with Jason were when I got a glimpse of who Aza is.
Jason, on the other hand, feels much more solidly written, like I got a good look into how his mind works. And I love the relationship he has with his parents, they’re all so open and comfortable with each other.
Dai, the first mate on the ship Aza finds herself in, is an interesting character, even if I do find his attitude questionable and quite asshole-ish. His history is revealed a bit in Magonia, and the bond (literally) he has with Aza is sure to come up in the sequel. I do want to learn more about him, but hopefully not as a love interest.
Aza’s mother, Zal Quel, goes from zero to sixty real quick, like she went off the deep end before the book even finished. The fact that she was shoving all this responsibility at Aza from the get-go was already suspicious, and honestly we all know the type – the one that looks like they have all the best interests of the country/movement/rebellion at heart, but as we go on, when their rule is threatened, suddenly brings out all the guns? That one. That’s Zal Quel, though I think there’s more to her and her motivations for doing what she’s been doing so far.
The romance, or not-romance, is one of the things I really liked about this book, because it’s so understated, and both Aza and Jason don’t really talk much. They just do things together, like viewing giant squid videos, and Jason trying to be there for Aza every time she needs to go to the hospital. Also because probably everything Jason does is to find a way to keep Aza alive. And also because of this:
He moves back from me so that we’re not kissing for a second.
“Aza Ray,” he says. “You hold no horrors for me.”
And is she even staying down here? Can she?
But it doesn’t matter. I can’t imagine a universe in which I try to unlove her.
There was An Attempt with Dai as well but I’m not buying, not when Jason spews all that!!
So basically, did I like Magonia? Yes, quite! Despite my earlier confusion I settled in and it all made sense in the end. The characters are interesting, the writing is atmospheric, and I would definitely read the sequel.
4 stars, one extra because of Jason! I’m kidding, no, not extra for Jason. Do pick up Magonia if you’d like something different from your YA fantasy.
Despite the familiar themes there’s enough in here to set it apart from other YA fantasy novels (like airships hiding from human eyes via storm cells).
Aside from Jason I don’t think I have as good a handle on anyone else’s personality, but I am definitely looking forward to getting to know them better!
The thing about the romance is that I think half the time Jason does something he doesn’t even know it’s romantic; it’s just matter-of-fact, and that’s why I like it so much.