Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley fantasy book reviews young adultMagonia by Maria Dahvana HeadleyMagonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Come for the wonderful voice (and attitude) of Aza Ray, the teenage narrator. Stay for a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding.

Magonia (2015) is one of those books that, while still partway through the sample, I knew I wanted to buy. It’s difficult to create a truly original character voice, but Maria Dahvana Headley pulls it off with Aza Ray. She even pulls it off again with Jason, Aza’s best friend, though his voice is less distinctive (this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism; most voices are less distinctive than Aza’s).

There are all too few books that reflect the experience of chronic illness, what it’s like not only for those who have it but for their friends and family. Magonia captures that experience wonderfully. Aza is by no means resigned to her fate, but she’s realistic about it. She snarks entertainingly about her situation, but she’s not in denial, or detached. Even if the plot had been less than it was, that alone would have got five stars from me. And Jason’s devoted love for her, not hindered, but counterpointed, by his own issues, comes through beautifully.

On top of that, add a plot with skyships (invisible to our civilization, but raiding it under cover of storms), sung magic, bird people, bird familiars that nest in adepts’ bodies, a corrupt flying city, proletarian rebellion, and a raid on the world seed repository in Spitzbergen. Most of those elements by themselves are not new or groundbreaking, but all together, and combined with the characters, they’re wonderful.

Be it noted also: for the first time in my memory, I’m giving a HarperCollins book my “well-edited” tag. This is a tribute to Maria Dahvana Headley, I’m sure, much as I’d like to think that that publisher has finally started taking copy editing seriously. I spotted only one typo, which is extremely rare (my average is a couple of dozen, across both trad-pub and indie books).

Magonia is what YA should be like. In fact, this is what fiction should be like.

Published in 2015. Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring YA debut is a fiercely intelligent, multilayered fantasy where Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies. Aza Ray Boyle 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—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?


  • Mike Reeves-McMillan

    MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.