Review: “Magonia” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley
Harper Voyager, 2015.

Turns out I’m a sucker for a Neil Gaiman blurb. Harper Voyager knows how to market to me. It’s also nice to have been following Neil long enough that I’m now seeing authors who are influenced by him.

Magonia is the YA debut from Maria Dahvana Headley, who has earned acclaimed for her historical fantasy Queen of Kings, as well as her award-nominated short fiction. She has also co-edited the collection Unnatural Creatures with Neil. Magonia has been described as The Fault Is In Our Stars
meets Stardust, which is a fair comparison.

The novel follows Aza Ray Boyle, a high school teenager with a mysterious lung illness that prevents her from breathing easily. She has spent her life in and out of hospitals, doomed to a lonely life with only her best friend Jason to share her adventures and interests. When she has one of her asthma-like attacks at school, she glances a flying ship out the window and hears her voice being called in the distance. She and Jason become obsessed with discovering whether it was real or a hallucination.

Jason, a young hacker with a knack for invention, starts researching the phenomenon, and finds cryptic historical references to Magonia, an otherworldly land above the clouds. But his and Aza’s research and budding romance, told through symbolic poetry inspired by e e Cummings, are cut short when Aza’s mysterious illness claims her life.

Turns out she’s not quite dead, however, and Magonia is real. Aza is the daughter of an exiled ship captain in Magonia and she needs to learn her place and discover her powers to lead the Magonians. Her breathing problems were caused by her peoples’ life in the rarified upper atmosphere, when on Earth they are literally drowning in the heavier air.

Magonians and “drowners”, as they refer to Earth folk, are in uneasy competition for natural resources, pollution of the planet is making Magonia more and more inhospitable, so the Magonians have to risk diving to the surface to steal livestock and grain. Aza and her mysterious powers are the key to Magonian survival.

In the meantime Jason hasn’t given up on his quest to discover Magonia, driven by a vision of Aza’s flying ship and her voice echoing over her funeral. He’s also discovered a mysterious artifact that fell from the sky over Aza’s grave.

I’m not really that keen on YA stories, especially ones that focus on teen relationships. And Headley did hint at a burgeoning love triangle with Aza, Jason and a young Magonian shipmate (thankfully this didn’t turn into a full blown Team competition). And because this is YA, it does end with our sky-crossed lovers alone against the world, trying to find peace while solving the conflict between Earth and Magonia. Plenty of room for an upcoming sequel.

But I did find Headley’s fantastical world intriguing and beautiful, and I loved her gorgeous way with language, especially how she worked e e Cummings poetry and style into the story.

Magonia is available April 28.

—Michael Senft

Buy Magonia

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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