Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley


Aza Ray has a history of hospitals. Ever since she can remember, she’s suffered from an unknown, debilitative respiratory condition that makes it almost impossible for her to breathe. For the doctors and her family, it’s a miracle she’s even made it to her sixteenth birthday. Aza’s more or less grown used to her status as The Girl Who Might Die At Any Moment, preferring to spend her time reading up on weird facts and spending time with her best friend Jason, who’s as equally into weird shit as she is.

Lately Aza’s been having hallucinations—ships in the sky, flocks of birds all around her—and hearing voices calling her name. Everyone chalks it up to her illness, but the hallucinations keep coming, and the weird shit around her keeps getting weirder, until finally her illness overtakes her and she stops breathing, and she dies…

…and awakens on a ship sailing across the sky. High above the earth in the ethereal space known as Magonia, Aza can breathe normally for the first time in her life. As it turns out, Aza never was human, but  a member of a humanoid avian race of people who for centuries have lived in and sailed the skies, hidden from human sight except for the oldest of recorded sightings. And in this new realm, she can work powerful magic with her voice. The ship’s captain—and Aza’s mother—believes Aza is destined to save the people of Magonia, but at the cost of the earth down below. Aza is going to have to save the world—but which one?

Magonia is a well-written book with clever ideas, cool use and manipulation of language and punctuation, and two wonderful characters in Aza and Jason. But this book has a huge problem, and that problem is it’s trying to tell two stories at the same time: one in which Aza has been living with an unknown, incurable lung disease, preparing alongside her family and best friend to die at any moment, and another in which Aza is a member of a part-bird, magical race of people amongst whom Aza is commanded to take her place. Theoretically both these stories are meant to form a cohesive whole, but in reality these two halves feel like they’re being forced to inhabit a single book together.

In a surprising turn of events for me, I found the non-fantasy story to be far more interesting and better written than the fantasy story. This is largely to do because Aza herself is vastly more interesting in the former. I loved how sarcastic and outwardly callous she is in the face of her constantly imminent death, and how bored she is of all the other people around her being overly sentimental about her inevitable tragic demise (the exception being Jason, who’s been her friend since she was little.) Aza’s narrative voice is filled with turns and tangents interweaving her medical history, her trove of obscure knowledge and penchant for weird shit, and her own snarky observances of the universe. And Jason.

Jason’s a legitimately über-smart geek who’s as as much of a snarky teenager as Aza, and he shares her love of obscure knowledge and weird shit. He has his own troubles, namely his severe anxiety wherein he spirals by endlessly reciting pi, and that he almost completely loses it when Aza is gone from his life. And because they know each other from the inside out, because Jason knows she isn’t dead and is out there, somewhere, amidst the myths and legends of a place called Magonia, he’s going to use his smarts to bend the Internet and government infrastructure to his will and find Aza.

Really, Aza and Jason’s friendship felt so easy and comfortable, and the way in which they knew each other from the inside out was so believable that it rendered the YA-requisite romance between the two of them laughably unnecessary. Jason’s confession of love and Aza’s revelation of her own love added nothing that wasn’t already written into their relationship at the story’s very beginning. The portrayal of their friendship provided more than enough reason and explanation for the depths of their devotion and the lengths each of them went to find each other.

Approximately a third of the way into Magonia, the narrative switches from telling a largely contemporary story about Aza dealing her illness and dying and hallucinations surrounded by her family and her best friend to a fantastical adventure story wherein Aza discovers she’s not human, that she’s the long-lost daughter of a ship’s captain who thinks Aza can save all of Magonia from starvation, and that she has the power to sing such that she can command and reshape matter at her will. And here’s where my interest in the story waned.

For starters, I didn’t like that as soon as Aza is able to breathe once she’s up in the sky, the place her body was actually born to survive in, she stopped thinking about her “illness” that had tried to kill her every single day of her life up to that point. The book drops the subject, and doesn’t bring it up except as a plot point later on when Aza may or may not have to go back down to earth. This is such a glaring contrast to the first half of the book when Aza’s experiences living with an illness that baffled medical science, and existing in a society and culture that doesn’t know how to relate to chronically sick and dying people was a huge part of who Aza was and how she related to the world.

Also lost in the fantastical story are other things that defined Aza as a character. Gone for the most part is her hard shell and her sarcastic voice, replaced instead with a strange determined loyalty to a mother she’s only just met and a race of being she never even knew existed until now. The details behind the world of Magonia and the beings who inhabit it—the more humanoid beings with avian characteristics (like Aza) and the shapeshifting humans/birds called rostrae—are only loosely sketched out. The conflict Aza finds herself a participant in wasn’t fully explained enough to pique my interest, nor did it seem enough to convincingly explain Aza’s involvement given just how little she actually knows about Magonia, the people on board the ship she’s on, or her own mother, who may or may not be a traitor to Magonia.

The main reason the contemporary story was the strongest storyline in Magonia was (ironically enough) because of how rooted it was in reality. This is mostly the fault of Aza and Jason’s fascination for obscure knowledge and weird shit about the known universe. While really cool in and of itself, the nature of this kind of hobby meant a whole bunch of specific details about hidden corners of the universe, which in turn shined a huge spotlight on just how broad of strokes the fantastical world and beings of Magonia are painted. There is no way Magonia is going to have the depth and nuance of the real world down below when the actually-real weird knowledge and legends and sightings give the contemporary storyline far more verisimilitude than it would have otherwise had.

My problems with Magonia can be summed up by the fact that Jason was my favorite character in the book because he remained down in the real world, and, unlike Aza, he stayed the same weird kid he was in the beginning, diving into random trivia, dubious legends, and dark corners of the Internet. With some exceptions, he didn’t have any contact with the world of Magonia, and he had zero knowledge, and therefore no involvement, in its vague political conflicts.

It’s a shame I bounced off Magonia as hard as I did. I didn’t really talk about it, but this book did some cool and unique things with sentence structure and punctuation to convey meaning and emotions that surprisingly worked really well. The writing is strong, I loved Aza and Jason as characters, and I liked all the ideas in this book. The execution wasn’t up to scratch. There’s a second book out later this year called Aerie, but I likely won’t be reading it.

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