Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley is poetry.
Not literally, of course. It’s prose. But if poetry could be prose, it would be Magonia. Headley pays attention not only to the words she uses, but how they look on the page. I’ve never seen a novel do that before–especially not a YA novel.
Within just a couple chapters I could tell the author is smart. She weaves historical irregularities (or, dare I say, conspiracy theories) around the fantastical world of Magonia, a civilization living in the clouds.
In the novel, 16-year-old Aza Ray, who suffers from a never-before-seen lung disease, hears a ship in the storm clouds call to her. While others chalk it up to medication-induced hallucinations, Aza and her genius best friend Jason research what the ship may be. Just as they’re on the brink of something big–in both their research and their relationship–Aza loses herself to her sickness and finds herself in a different world. A world above the clouds. A world that seems convinced she can help save it from the disaster pollution has doomed it to.
Not only does this book have a beautiful plot; it has quirky, loveable characters. The protagonist is a pessimist and I didn’t like her attitude from the start, but… she’s dying. I think a negative outlook on life fits her character well, particularly since she was in such a difficult situation. And I was able to appreciate her voice by the end of the book. My favorite character was the pi-reciting, alligator-suit-wearing inventor Jason. He’s different from any other character I’ve read in the best way possible. While I normally find that I prefer one voice over another when a story is told through multiple characters, I enjoyed reading from both Aza’s and Jason’s perspectives.
Though the novel centers on Aza and Jason, the secondary characters are also well-developed. I know very little about Aza’s sister Eli, for example, but the image of her hair cut ragged at the ends brought me to tears. And Jason’s moms (especially Eve) were defined in such a way that they clarified Jason’s character. Through a single comment about Big Bird and a story about war-mice I understood all I needed to know about Aza’s parents. Headley’s characterization brought the story to life; moreover, it did so concisely. There isn’t one scene I would cut.
The book isn’t a light read, either. It addresses a wide variety of controversial topics, namely environmental destruction, physical disabilities, mental disorders, and homosexuality. I mean, the novel is based on an early conspiracy theory.
I scrolled through other reviews on Goodreads to see why other readers may dislike this book. One reader said she couldn’t buy into the concept of bird-people. While I think Headley could have used more description of their appearance, what does it really matter? The ambiguity of this fictional race allows readers to come up with their own image of the “bird-people.” I understand that some people prefer authors to have detailed world-building rather than leave it up to the reader’s imagination, which is why I just recommend this book for those who can allow themselves to imagine and believe in another world, even if only for a little while.
The urban fantasy seems to be the only bit readers get caught up on, so I think the problem is not in the book itself, but in making its target audience a little more precise. Though the beginning may sound similar to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, for example, I would not recommend it to the same readers, since it relies much more on fantasy and strays from the “sick girl perspective” about a quarter of the way through.
Who would I recommend it for, then? Hm. This book is so completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read, it’s difficult to identify the best audience. Age-wise, I would recommend it for high school students and above due to language and the depth of certain concepts.
All I can think to say besides that is Magonia is like if Neil Gaiman were to write Kenneth Oppel‘s Airborn from the perspective of a darker Hazel Grace. If that sounds remotely interesting to you, I recommend reading it.
PS–Apologies for my absence from this blog. I returned from college and had to train for my summer job, so my schedule’s been a bit scattered.