Magonia

Title: Magonia

Author: Maria Dahvana Headley

Aza has always been sick. Breathing problems have landed her in the hospital so much she’s a professional patient. And being constantly sick hasn’t made it easy to make friends. All she has is Jason, a guy whose trivia knowledge and snark can rival hers. But just when things might be changing between them from friends to something more, her life turns into something she never thought possible. Now she’s navigating a strange society, torn between her own desires and what everyone says is her destiny.

This is somewhat outside the genres I usually read, but I picked it up for the fantasy aspects. And in that sense, it was a good read. Magonia has an interesting premise, and the way it works out in practice was a lot of fun. I liked the Rostae the most. (Bird-shapeshifters! And not entirely human-looking ones, at that.) The details of a society based in the sky worked, as does their main problem with getting enough to eat.

Aza has a pretty sharp and defined voice, although midway through the book it starts blurring a little into something more like the prose used for Jason. I can appreciate the technique, even if I wasn’t personally as fond of the poetry-styled text flowing in odd shapes around the page. The observation I liked best was death as separation rather than ending, because I think that touches on something really true—the tragedy of death is not so much that a life has ended, but that those who loved that life are suddenly torn apart from it, and whatever was unsaid or undone will remain that way.

And I really liked Jason. The first-person point of view helps to underline that although he thinks in much the same ways as Aza, he’s also very different. I liked his OCD-ness and the way he approaches facts and research. I like how both of them see the competition between them differently, how determined he is to get one over her, and how he actually manages it on multiple occasions. I liked their first meeting, what he did for her birthday, and what he did at the funeral. He shows in a lot of ways that he really understands her, even the bits of her she doesn’t understand about herself.

But I wasn’t as fond of the book on some other levels. The first one is that the plot is in large part the love triangle between Aza, Jason, and Dai. Basically, it’s a romance-with-fantasy and not a fantasy-with-romance (that is, the former is the thrust of the story and the latter is the supporting detail). Aza fits well with Jason—he’s seen her at her worst and is willing to take her for who she is. Dai is the attractive one who is mostly a jerk with a tragic past. So I was hugely frustrated that Aza kept allowing Dai’s looks to overwhelm her, or she uses his past to excuse his present behavior. This is, in a lot of ways, the “contemporary teen romance” angle blended into the story, and I hate those types of stories for reasons like this.

The other thing that really bothered me is that Jason’s family is two lesbians raising him, and Jason’s character doesn’t fit with that. This is portrayed as a pretty stable and happy family, but it completely ignores the fact that Jason, himself, is a male. His mothers went as far as removing his father from his birth certificate, and when he mentions it, he says it like it’s sweet and not totally selfish to try to rewrite his life to remove all male influence (not to mention I think it’s a sign of being disturbed to want to claim that the reality that Jason had a father can and should be changed; no matter how much of a deadbeat he was, he is still actually, physically responsible for Jason existing at all). Jason shows no signs of gender confusion, despite the fact that no one in his family (and no family friends are mentioned either) would be able to show him what it is to be a man, versus being a woman. I know it’s popular to claim people are people, and to some extent that’s absolutely correct—but men and women are not interchangeable cogs such that any combination works out the same. In the workforce it can work out that way, but marriage and family is a totally different thing with a different purpose.

Anyway. The book ends with a lot of potential for a sequel, as things have only momentarily gone back to “normal” and it seems a war may be brewing. I’m sure that means plenty of more opportunity for Dai to trouble Aza’s heart, so I’m not sure I would go any further, although I would be interested in seeing a lot more of Magonia, as there are plenty of things only mentioned but not shown that I wanted to see. So overall the recommendation on this is a bit mixed. If the teen love-triangle-romance angle is something that excites you rather than makes you groan, you’ll probably love this. But if, like me, you prefer more of a fantasy-with-romance than a romance-with-fantasy, the large amount of Aza falling for Dai is likely to be an aggravating deviation from the parts of the story that are unique. So, I rate this book Recommended if the romance appeals, and Neutral otherwise.

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