Maria Dahvana Headley’s entry into YA fantasy is a strong, strong one. Magonia is the story of 16 year old Aza Ray Boyle, a girl who can not breathe the air of earth and has has been almost drowning in the atmosphere since shewas a baby.
Aza has always been different, always been unlike anyone else. ‘My history is hospitals’, she says at the very start of Magonia, describing her disease as something so unique that it is named after her, the only known carrier of Azaray Syndrome, with her tilted lungs and her strange heart. A miracle, the school nurse proclaims, and maybe she is, but mainly, Aza is just tired of being sick, tired of doctors not understanding her. ‘I’m dark matter’, she explains. ‘The universe inside of me is full of something, and science can’t even shine a light on it. I feel like I’m mostly made of mysteries’.
These mysteries are explored further when Aza stars to see visions of ships in the sky, and hears a voice calling down to her. Though her parents try to write this off as hallucinations caused by medication, Aza knows something strange is happening, especially when a huge flock of birds descends on the lawn outside her bedroom window and a feather is found in her lung.
A feather. In her lung! There’s something terribly tactile about that idea, something powerful and itchy and strange. That’s just the sort of book Magonia is, in fact, that’s just the sort of writer Headley is, with her wild, unique, gorgeous ideas of blue-hued sky people made flesh and leaping off the pages of Magonia. Because once Aza leaves the earth and ascends to the world of Magonia, with it’s vast sky ships, indentured labour bird-people, bat-sails, tiny totemic birds living in hearts, a ghost that is ‘old sadness with a loud voice’, the thrills and twists in this adventure never flag at all.
Magonia, in real life, is also the botanical genus for a number species of flowering plants, many of them massive trees like the horse chestnut and the neem. Not one to forget such details, Headley weaves the trees in to her story too, in an savvy ecologically aware move.
There is great hope in Magonia. There is sweeping beauty and pain and wonder, too. Headley’s worldbuilding is finely crafted, featuring a society that is just as complex as any we’ve known, though so much more colourful and innovative than any we’ve seen in recent YA. This a book that brings to mind specific moments from Diana Wynne Jones’ incredible Chrestomanci novels, moments that are so fiercely imaginative they take your breath away.
Until tomorrow: Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.