Aza Ray is a fifteen-year-old girl who suffers from a rare lung condition; so rare, in fact, it gets named after her, which doesn’t impress her very much. Throughout her young life, the doctors have been setting and resetting her expectations for how many years she has left, but the answer is always ‘not many’. The end is getting closer now, and she and her best friend are coming to terms with that, and their unspoken feelings for each other, when Aza is beset by strange hallucinations. It starts with a ship in the sky, briefly glimpsed between the clouds; a ship that’s calling her home.
Magonia is a very strange book. It’s not strange because it has skyships, and stormsharks, and little birds that live in people’s lungs. It’s strange because the best parts of it are the ones that avoid all of those things and stay grounded in our world. And believe me, I’m usually all about the fantastical.
The first part of the story necessarily has Aza ignorant of the origin of her hallucinations, so around the unravelling of what Magonia is and just what Aza’s seeing, the meat of the story is more concerned with her ongoing struggle with her illness, as well as her family’s, and her coming to terms with its final stages. The writing here is, largely, really quite good. Aza is ridiculously precocious and doesn’t sound like a fifteen-year-old at all, but that’s hardly uncommon for young adult fiction, and since she believes herself to have a terminal illness she has one of the better excuses out there. As smart-mouthed teenage protagonists go, she’s one of the more likeable ones, even if her dialogue frequently ventures into ‘No one talks like this!’ territory.
It’s the secondary characters here who are just wonderful. Aza’s family are loving and supportive and, although she has some of that fifteen-year-old independence-slash-contrariness, it’s obvious that she loves them too, and they are not treated as an obstacle in her life the way families are in so many young adult novels. Their fear, their grief, their ways of trying to fight and cope with what’s happening to their daughter and sister, are allowed to take shape on the page. There’s an ambulance scene that is one of the most affecting ‘family deals with loved one’s serious illness’ moments I have read. And then there’s Jason, Aza’s best friend, and the way their feelings for each other are bitterly intertwined with the knowledge that she will not be here long enough for them to have the kind of relationship they want. Jason is far too lovely and mature to be believable as a sixteen-year-old boy, but hey, he’s had to grow up fast too. I really like that mental illness is part of his background and it’s not a plot device or a character flaw, it’s just a thing he’s had to go through, and the people around him treat it in a way both matter-of-fact and compassionate. He also has two fantastic mothers who are each wonderful in totally different ways, and I love how those ways were highlighted.
The problem with Magonia is Magonia itself. It’s such a cool idea, but it never progresses beyond cool idea into fully-developed world. It reminds me of developing settings for tabletop role-playing games, where there’s a tendency to get caught up in stuff that sounds great on paper — ‘Aztecs! In space! At war! With bunnies!’ — and forget to actually make all of this live and breathe on a human level. I can suspend disbelief for just about anything, for spacebunnies and stormsharks and bug people, if there is verisimilitude and concrete world-building and depth of character.
But in Magonia? Not so much. People who have no rationale for not answering questions refuse to answer them because, I don’t know, it extends the mystery for the reader or something. The characterisation is so thin that it’s difficult to believe that the same author who made me feel so strongly for Aza’s family could leave me so ambivalent about the entire crew of the Annapenny (except Caru), to the point that I can’t seem to remember Dai’s name whenever I’m not looking at it. I have absolutely no idea what Magonian society looks like and no real curiosity to find out, because in lieu of that all I got was window-dressing about squallwhales and other celestial oddities, which, while beautiful in concept, didn’t really amount to anything.
Actually, I’m not sure any of it really amounted to anything. Aza’s personal storyline is addressed with a deus ex machina, and a total tossing-out of logic and character development in favour of a pat ending. The ramifications for Magonian society (whatever that may be), the motives held by the humans who landed Magonia in such trouble in the first place? Well, I guess it’s a good job I wasn’t given many incentives to care about any of that, because there’s no closure to be found here.
I wanted to like this book. It should’ve been right up my alley. And in fairness, I didn’t hate it — I really do think the characterisation in the first half was excellent, and that the writing, although annoyingly stylised at times, was quite evocative, especially in Jason’s sections. But if I had to summarise it, it would be ‘Pretty, but empty’. There’s no there there. If Headley returns to Magonia in another book, I sincerely hope she gives the world as much love on the page as she did to Aza and her family in this one.