What’s that, up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a magical floating cloud-city? It’s Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Aza Ray 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—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?
I really liked the first part of Magonia, the character establishment for Aza Ray. She quickly established herself as a compelling character with a unique narrative voice, interesting enough that I didn’t mind reading the “boring” part of the book which is just her everyday life before anything fantastical happens.
After that is when the story started to get strange. Not in terms of narrative – it’s your classic changeling protagonist from a magical world with a special talent and destiny tale – but in terms of execution. It makes some really weird storytelling choices which undermined the experience a lot for me.
Usually, when the protagonist is whisked away from their home to a magical world, it’s under one of two circumstances: either they were always unhappy with their miserable everyday life and leap at the chance for adventure and a new beginning; or they want desperately to go home, but don’t know how or something is preventing them from doing so until they’ve achieved some task and completed their destiny. In Aza’s case, she has both the desire and the means to return home – but the Magonians refuse to allow her to, basically making her a prisoner on their ship. And while Captain Zal makes a big speech about how happy she is to be reunited with her long-lost daughter after fifteen years of separation, the crew immediately sets to treating Aza like crap: insulting her and forcing her to swab the decks and so on. It makes them come off not as exciting magical denizens of a world of mystery and adventure, but as villains. Yes, Captain Zal actually does turn out to be the villain of the novel; but it’s far too soon to be showing that card, because making it obvious that Zal is evil so early on then makes Aza seem like a complete idiot for siding with and deciding to trust her later on.
Then there’s the battle with the pirates, leading up to Zal executing Ley. This is a scene that makes it blatantly obvious that Zal is a nasty, lying, oath-breaking villain who will attempt to destroy the world at the climax. It should be the point in the story when Aza questions her loyalty to the Magonians, realizes that they aren’t actually as wonderful as she first assumed. Instead, it’s the point at which she fully embraces them and starts identifying as Magonian rather than human. What?
It would have worked so very much better if the Magonians had begun by treating Aza with overblown kindness, rejoicing at the long-awaited return of their captain’s beloved daughter. They could sympathize with her desire to return to the world that she grew up in but sadly inform her that it was no longer possible for her to breathe Earth air now that she’d shed her human skin, then offer to make her new life as wonderful as possible by showing her all the fantastic marvels of their world and teaching her to use magic and just generally sucking up to her. It would then make more sense for Aza to be willing to let go of her past connections and accept the Magonians. Gradually, there would be hints that things weren’t right, that this world and these people weren’t as wonderful and benevolent as they seemed, but they’d be so kind and magnanimous towards her that she’d make herself overlook it. And then it could come as a proper terrible shock when she learned about the dark and nefarious aspects to Magonia: the enslavement of the canwr, Rostrae, and batsails; the plan to use her as a tool to destroy the human world; and (in this hypothetical) that they lied to her about not being able to put on another human skin. That would have made sense. But instead, we get this weird situation where Aza starts off hating the Magonians for taking her away from her family, but starts liking them more and more the more unpleasantness and villainy she sees from them, but then is surprised when it turns out they want to use her power to destroy the world. I mean, I can accept that Aza has a magical bird living in her lung which is able to enter and leave her body using a door in her skin, but this is pushing suspension of disbelief too far.
Now, this isn’t to say that nothing in the book works. As I previously stated, I liked how the introductory chapters presented Aza, making me very invested in her character. And later in the book, the reveal of the true nature of the Breaths is one of the surprises which actually does work. But overall, there are too many fundamental structural problems for me to truly enjoy or recommend this book.
Just one final stray observation before I close out the review. Magonia is one of those books which does weird things with text placement: oddly stretching out words across pages to try and match with the action they describe or something. Please, don’t do that. I have read about two books in my entire life where that writing style actually worked – House of Leaves and The Girl From The Well – and the rest of the time it’s just awkward and annoying and breaks the flow of the writing. It added nothing, and the book would have been better without it.
So, in final summation: Magonia tries to soar, but it doesn’t get far off the ground.
Final Rating: 2/5