Review: Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

13 April, 2016 Reviews 4 comments

Review: Magonia by Maria Dahvana HeadleyMagonia by Maria Dahvana Headley
Series: Magonia #1
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on 28th April 2015
Pages: 320
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: e-Book, eBook
Source: Purchased
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

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 breathe in. I breathe out. The sky’s full of clouds.”

Buckle in, friends. It’s been a long time since I last sat down to write something, so this is likely going to get long. I apologize in advance.

I’ll kick things off with something a tad controversial by telling you this: I enjoy story padding. Despite all of the troubles that it can (and probably will) introduce to a book, I’m fond of authors who are willing/stubborn enough to tuck several hundred pages worth of description and tomfoolery around the events and characters that are actually important in the long run. Yes, the pacing will probably drag in consequence, and be wildly uneven as a whole. Yes, conflicts will be stretched to ridiculous lengths to prevent them from being resolved too soon. Yes, you’ll likely have to force yourself through whole chapters dedicated to arcs and individuals that you couldn’t give a damn about.

To me, at least, these issues are frequently worth dealing with in comparison to what you get in exchange: namely, really good worldbuilding. George R. R. Martin and Stephen King don’t need a thousand pages to tell their stories, but they cram them so full of detail and nuance that it allows their worlds to breathe — to come alive in a way that not many books do. Of course, this hinges on the reader’s general opinion of what is happening, and to whom, because if you’re anything less than enthralled by these people and the quest that they’re (supposed to be) undertaking, it’s not going to work.

But we’ve all been there. We’ve all fallen for a fictional cast who we’ve come to love so much that we’re desperate to spend as much time with them as possible, even if nothing much is happening to them. That’s why, when done right, I love padding: it gives us a chance to dig into a new universe and see its parts, or at the very least to share some quiet moments with the folks that we’ve been stuck with since page one.

Hence why I love books from the above authors, like A Dance with Dragons and It. Martin and King have pulled off something that’s generally very difficult to do: they’ve made me willing to significantly extend my stay in their words. Instead of simply passing through — here’s the gimmick, here are your heroes, here is how they win, thank you, goodbye — as a visitor there for a weekend, they’ve convinced me to build in the pages a second home in which I can put up my feet and relax for long stretches of time each year. To do that, a writer has to first pull off the basics of storytelling:

  1. Create a world with its own, unique set of rules and functions.
  2. Fill said world with people that I care about.

…which is difficult enough as it is. But then he or she has to take it a step further:

  1. Make the world so interesting that I’m desperate to learn everything that I can about it.
  2. Make the people in it so lifelike that I’m eager to spend as much time with them as I can.

Obviously, not every premise or cast is going to be rich enough in novelty and/or charm to pull this off, but I wish that more books gave it an honest try. Because if you can make me care enough, I’ll be more than willing to spend eight hundred pages reading about the inner workings of Kingdom with Fancy Name’s political system and the various, pointless misadventures of Main Character with Cool Name and her friends, even if they just involve the gang sitting down for a round of cards in which somebody ends up on the losing side of a bet.

“I like the sky. It’s rational to me in a way that life isn’t. Looking at it doesn’t suck the way you might think it would, given all the dying-girl-stares-at-heaven possibilities.”

All of this is a very, very long buildup to my bringing up my main issue with Magonia, and that is the fact that it feels like a very big story trapped inside a very small book.

There’s a lot of really neat stuff here. None of it’s particularly new, perhaps, but when you put it all together, you have a very exciting world to play around with. Airships, cities in the sky, whales that swim through cloud and create weather, sharks made of lightning, music that can transform the elements, and so on. It’s beautiful to imagine and creates a stage that could be used to incredible effect…

…and then it’s all shoehorned into a very by-the-numbers YA fantasy template.

It’s frustrating, because it feels like Headley is limiting her imagination for the sake of a guaranteed, tried-and-true formula that we’ve already read a dozen times since Twilight hit the pop culture scene like a freight train made of low self-esteem and not-human (but still gorgeous) boyfriends. There’s so much potential here, but all of the best pieces of this world are strung along a predictable narrative that seems like a checklist for just about every trope that YA fantasy is apparently required to have.

So Magonia gives us a story that contains a race of beings that:

  • uses the weather generated by flying whales to harvest crops from mankind
  • flies about in ships that use enormous bats and shape-shifting birds to remain in the air
  • performs magic using the songs sung with avian partners that roost inside one’s chest
  • sails through a sky infested with krakens, fish, and pirates

That’s all very, very cool, is it not? I certainly think so. Visually, it’s a gorgeous setting to imagine, and it opens the story up to some truly spectacular possibilities. So why must it instead act as the backdrop for a plot that contains, yet again:

  • a protagonist who discovers that she is ‘special’ and ‘caught between two worlds’
  • a love interest who has been said protagonist’s best friend since they were young
  • a second love interest who is from this new and alien world and has a ‘mysterious, unbreakable connection’ with the protagonist despite initially treating her with scorn (cue tragic backstory)
  • a conflict that hinges on the protagonist being fooled by her new companions because she ‘is not ready to learn the whole truth’

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these storytelling beats. It’s just that they’ve been combined in this same manner so many times before in recent years that they’re very hard to present in a way that isn’t inherently dull.

We have our heroine Aza Ray, who spends her life feeling different because of her disease. Naturally, this means that she has a lot of time to read. She attempts to lampshade this ‘I’m Not Like Other Kids My Age’ bit, but it doesn’t really work, because we also have our male lead, Jason, who is also different because he is, naturally, a genius. And a hacker. And a entrepreneur who has already made a great deal of money from various gadgets that he has invented. And who is secretly so in love with Aza that she is his entire world.

So the first quarter of the book is a bit of a slog because it plays out like a John Green novel. Despite being all of fifteen, these two are so ‘quirky’ and apparently obsessed with one another that they don’t come across as people at all. Aza naturally has an incredibly intelligent (and sarcastic) younger sister who likes to cut her own hair, and a mother who works with mice developing advanced biochemical technology. Jason has a mother who chained herself to trees when she was younger and met her wife while living in one in protest. Aza likes to cut and fold paper into elaborate dioramas. Jason reads books like Kepler’s Dream: With the Full Text and Notes of Somnium, Sive Astronomia Lunaris. So instead, they’re a collection of ridiculous quotes such as:

“When we were ten, I did go for an Icarus thing. Jason built the wings, from plans drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Turns out that canvas and balsa-wood Renaissance wings don’t cut it when you’re hopping from the top of the garage.”

“‘I don’t need to know,’ he says, then looks at me and grins a crooked grin that is in danger of not being a grin at all.”

“When we were twelve, we stole Jason’s mom Eve’s Pontiac, and drove it three hundred miles in order to acquire the correct feathers for the taxidermy of a hoax griffin.”

“He lifts his fist and bumps mine. But then he lets his hand stay there. I feel his knuckles. I feel myself turning red.”

They watch (hacked) footage of giant squids and make eclairs. They trade obscure facts that they’ve discovered on the Internet to one-up one another. I understand the need to make your characters feel unique and ‘real,’ but this is a bit much. There’s only so far that you can take the ‘eccentric’ angle before it turns your subject into a haphazard collection of ‘random’ oddities, rather than a person.

Thankfully, once Aza ‘dies,’ things pick up and stay that way until the end. The big concern — and here I attempt to justify that long introduction — is that there just isn’t enough space in the rest of the book to make good on the tantalizing imagery. It’s not so much ‘rushed’ as it is ‘skimmed,’ with Aza being thrown into her new life so quickly that we really don’t get much time to enjoy the novelty. We get the written equivalent of a montage — complete with time skips — here and there, and suddenly we’re already being subjected to twists and betrayals and a ‘Let’s Save the World’ plot.

It almost feels like the author is trying to write for an eventual movie adaptation. She lays the groundwork for these exciting scenes and locales, but doesn’t spend much time describing them beyond what is absolutely necessary. If it were to be made into a film, Magonia as it is now could work, because we would have the magic of CGI and a swelling orchestral score to immediately create these moments for us. But for the time being, while we have only what’s on paper, it isn’t adequate. Here is where a few hundred more pages might have come in handy. Give us more: more descriptions of the ships and the songs that warp reality. More descriptions of how Magonian society functions. More scenes of Aza trying to come to grips with her new situation and abilities. More moments of her learning to connect with Zal (her ‘real’ mother and the captain of the ship that she now lives on) and Dai (‘Love Interest #2’). It may have slowed down the plotting, but I think that it would have been worth it, and made good on the excitement that comes with such a lovely cover and idea.

Instead, it all speeds by to hit the perfunctory notes that we all expect from the genre by now: Aza suddenly developing these overpowering urges to touch Dai, because they are ‘made for one another’ and every fifteen-year-old in existence apparently has absolutely no control over their libido; Aza suddenly discovering her ‘special power’ that nobody else possesses; Aza suddenly wondering which world she is loyal to. This reiteration just happens to be mixed in with a terribly oversimplified message regarding global warming that essentially boils down to ‘humans hate the environment and greedily take everything, so they should probably die.’ It sort of ignores the endless complexity and complete imbalance inherent to the global distribution of resources/wealth and the efforts that many are taking to address the issue.

Meanwhile, we get chapters from Jason’s perspective that track his investigation into Aza’s ‘death’ and his determination to discover the truth of Magonia. Jason irks me not only because of his ‘I Love Her and Would Die Without Her’ attitude (again, this boy is fifteen/sixteen years old, but I do at least like the fact that it’s really only the male lead given this approach — Aza’s feelings are quite a bit less dramatic), but because his being a genius allows him to conveniently be wherever the plot may need him, or to handily dump information onto the reader. He manages to discover legends about Magonia and explain them in detail to Aza/the reader before its existence is even revealed. After another display of ludicrous ‘quirkiness’ during Aza’s funeral (which involves honking Morse code during the procession and wearing an alligator outfit), he’s miraculously able to track Aza’s ship and figure out where she is headed (read: where the finale will take place). All of it is handwaved by his being ‘good at hacking’ and ‘having a lot of money’ and ‘using the power of the Internet,’ but it just feels lazy.

And it’s all so unnecessary. There’s a great story here, but it’s strangled by this reliance on convention: the love triangle, the clear sequel hooks, the ‘Chosen One’ and ‘Let’s Have This Young Girl Spearhead a Revolution’ narratives. Had the approach been a bit more methodical and fleshed out, the predictability of the core plot may not have been such a big issue. As is, it’s just very obvious.

That being said, Magonia does have its strengths. The premise is, of course, wonderful, and shows flashes of promise when it isn’t being bogged down by everything else. The ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style of narration may be off-putting for some, but I think it works, as it allows for some lovely passages (Aza’s ‘death’ and the final few scenes are all very well done and surprisingly emotional), and grounds the two speakers in a sense of personality and believability that their actions (see the ‘quirkiness’ mentioned above) sometime threaten. Aza, despite being rather wish-washy about her beliefs (“So she’s abandoning human life and embracing Magonia. Okay. Wait, now she’s doubting what she’s learned. Wait, now she’s loyal to her new cause. Wait, now she misses Jason and her old family…”) and, well, yet another teenage girl tasked to change the world as the linchpin of a revolution, has enough spunk and humor to keep you going. I had to force myself to pick it up again every time I put it down, but to the book’s credit, I found it hard to stop reading once I did. And despite my reservations, I’m invested enough to see the series through.

And on a quick side note: I really wish that authors would take that final step when it comes to LGBTQIA representation in their stories. Jason having two moms — both of whom are clearly shown to be loving parents and to have personalities beyond being ‘not straight’ — whose relationship is more or less allowed to simply exist is lovely, but I have to wonder why it could haven’t been taken just slightly further and extend to the main cast. Why couldn’t Jason and/or Dai have been a woman? (For the latter, there’s even a nice secondary character who could have simply assumed the role, rather than being regulated to the sidelines and a handful of minor scenes.) Aside from their names and a few sentences worth of description each, nothing would have had to change had their genders been changed. Such a simple tweak that would have been so important for so many readers. Why can’t our fantasy heroine be a lesbian? Be bisexual? I know that this is Headley’s story, and that she is allowed to tell it how she wishes, but let’s consider the historical context here. LGBTQIA readers have so little media that focuses upon them in general, and so much of what does exist is only the same sort of ‘contemporary drama’ that’s concerned almost exclusively with the misfortunes (and here I mostly mean ‘death’) that they apparently cannot escape. ‘Small-Town Drama in Which the Heroine Must Escape Her Homophobic Family to Pursue Her True Self’ is very well and good, but it’s been done many times already, and we need ‘Escapist Fantasy in Which the Heroine Must Sail Her Flying Ship to Save a Floating City with Her Cool Half-Bird Girlfriend’ as well.


So… Should I Read It?

In the end, I would say ‘yes,’ if only for the idea of the story, rather than the story itself. There’s enough to stir your imagination and keep it thrumming that it makes the journey worthwhile, and things end strongly enough that the possibility that the sequel could improve things is definitely there.

Fingers crossed, I guess.



As a bit of an experiment, I put together a list of songs that came to mind while I was reading, and I thought that I would include it here, if only to give you the opportunity to make fun of my musical tastes. With any luck, this little playlist will give you an idea of what this world could be like in full sound and color. (And considering how big a role the former plays in this particular story, I figure that it couldn’t hurt.)

  1. ‘Lighter Than Air’ — Garry Schyman (from BioShock Infinite)
  2. ‘The Big Sky’ — Kate Bush
  3. ‘Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)’ — The Icicle Works
  4. ‘Flying’ — James Newton Howard (from Peter Pan)
A reader who doesn't pick up his books nearly as often as he should, but who would like to offer the occasional review when he can nonetheless. Find me on Goodreads here.

4 Responses to “Review: Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley”

  1. Martha

    Hmmm…I kind of wanted to read this when it came out based on the gorgeous cover, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t like the idea of another typical YA plotline, especially if it resembles a John Green novel (I know I’m the odd woman out, but I’m just not as enamored with him as everyone else seems to be). And I am soooo over these fifteen or sixteen year old kids being madly eternally in love–just stahp already! I can see lust or like or the buddings of love, but this is just a bit much.
    Martha recently posted…Fluff, feminism, and free speech: a late-to-the-party book review of ‘The Selection’My Profile

    • Monteverdi

      I’m not particularly enamored with Green’s work, either, but it’s a minor enough element in the overall story that you may still enjoy it, so long as the rest of the plot isn’t too predictable for you.

      And YA fantasy may not be brimming with original and/or exceptional stories these days, but at least the genre knows how to create a great cover. It’s a shame so many of them turn out to be the best part of their respective books.

  2. Carina Olsen

    Ohh, such a long review 🙂 Thank you for sharing all of your awesome thoughts about this book Monteverdi. <3 You are awesome 😀 I loved reading all of your opinions about this one. Ack. I'm glad you liked it, but so sorry about all the issues. Sounds a bit annoying o.O Not a book for me, sadly. Sigh. Though that cover IS gorgeous 😀 Which I love.
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday #235My Profile

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