Setting Sail: “Magonia” Book Review

Magonia cover.jpg
image source: strangehorizons.com

Book spoilers ahead, beware!

Described as Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Magonia tells the story of almost-sixteen-year-old Aza Ray Boyle, who suffers from a debilitating and mysterious respiratory condition which hinders her activity. After she “succumbs” to her disease, Aza ascends to the heavens and enters Magonia: a mystical city of ships, where the skies are the seas.

In Magonia, Aza meets her biological mother, Zal Quel, captain of the ship Amina Pennarum who requires her help to rescue Magonians from starvation. The reason Aza could not thrive with the humans—or ‘drowners,’ as Magonians call them—was that their air quality was insufficient.

Although the fantasy world of Magonia is fictional, there is a historical basis. Headley introduces medieval Irish texts called the Annals of Ulster by way of her characters. Written in the eighth century, the Annals of Ulster document people’s accounts of ships sailing the skies. Headley’s book mentions other creatures, like bat-sails and squall-whales, which aid in the ships’ flight but of course are not in the Annals. Headley skillfully manages to incorporate historical texts into Magonia, without being overwhelming or watered-down. And if there is a question of whether she allows a slight tribute to a medieval text to give her fantasy world an ounce of realism, it makes me neither jaded nor suspicious.

As per the book’s cover, birds are prominent symbols in the book. As someone who dabbles in poetry myself this excited me, as birds have been used over the centuries as metaphors for freedom and flight. Firstly, Magonians are not the only residents of Magonia—there are also bird-human hybrids called “Rostrae” in Headley’s world. The Rostrae are humanoid creatures with blue skin and wide black eyes, who work on ships and serve the Magonians. As Aza discovers later, they also have the ability to transform completely into birds.

But birds are not the only reoccurring theme in Magonia; for every bird, there is a song. And Aza, after living among the humans and inhaling poor air, has not developed her song. To remedy this Captain Quel enlists her first-mate, Dai, to assist her and teach Aza. In Magonia songs are akin to magic—they have the ability to change elements, and Aza’s song, according to the Captain, is especially important in the success of her mission. Tiny birds, called “canwrs”, reside in the chests of Magonians to help them sing.

In addition to Aza, who is as real as any other leading female character I’ve seen in fantasy novels, Magonia does contain some interesting characters. Aza’s best friend, Jason, is an amalgamation of quirky traits and skills: a handsome cook with patents on two inventions who recites pi to hundreds of places when he’s anxious. He’s not perfect by far, but he does complement Aza in other ways.

Aza’s human mother, as well as her biological mother Captain Quel, also offer interesting perspectives on the traditional stock roles of the Helper. As Magonia is a first-person narrative, readers do not glean information on the inner thoughts of the other female characters in the novel.

Unlike other novels, Magonia’s page prose is unconventional. While the majority is paragraph format, there are parts that read like concrete poetry, with strikethroughs, one-word lines, and even swirling text. And though employing unique tactics like this doesn’t always translate very well—like Maggie Stiefvater’s colored ink in her Shiver series—Headley manages to succeed without being corny. Her approach adds to the dream-like air of the world she created.

Like some Hollywood movies, Magonia didn’t have much in the way of plot. The story focused more on Aza’s integration into Magonia and the development of her singing abilities than the execution of the Captain’s plan, the latter taking up a few chapters at the end. Other reviews described this style of writing as leading toward a great epic finale, but I thought that Headley could, and should, have fleshed out the climax more than she did. Furthermore, it wasn’t nearly as epic as the reviews promised.

Magonia is a fascinating read, with a highly developed fantasy world and a host of characters for a certain kind of reader to fall in love with. It is the first in a series.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

-Contributed by Terese Mason Pierre

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