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Magonia cover

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a world in possession of a good deal more magic than you ever imagined possible must be in want of a savior. And possibly a love triangle. And so it is with the world of Magonia, a swashbucklingish fantasy adventure set, for the most part, in a world of sky-pirate bird-people who sometimes steal crops, squabble over politics, occasionally steal children, very rarely execute people with plank walking, and have other, smaller birds called canwr (Welsh for singer) that sometimes hang out in their chests and help them sing magical songs that do magic stuff (swabbing the deck, lifting mountains, etc.).

We enter Magonia, the world and the book, through Aza, a young girl of our world who has spent all her life very and strangely ill. Her lungs are arranged the wrong way. Her ribs seem a bit funny. Her heart’s a bit off. She has grown up in and out of hospitals and emerged smart and broken and exceedingly sarcastic—“Nothing really majorly wrong with me. Don’t worry. I just have a history of hospitals” (p. 3). She’s also capable of seeing the world with an alchemical mixture of romance and pragmatism. Witness, for example, the following paragraph where Aza talks about her relationship to a rational sky which, soon enough, she’ll find herself soaring through, on board a flying ship that trades a traditional sail for a giant bat.

I like the sky. It’s rational to me in a way that life isn’t. Looking at it doesn’t suck the way you might think it would, given all the dying-girl-stares-at-heaven possibilities. I don’t think of the sky as any kind of heaven item. I think of it as a bunch of gases and faraway echoes of things that used to be on fire. (p. 25)

Headley spends a good bit of time at the beginning of her novel grounding us, as it were, with Aza, her family, and her forever friend Jason. Aza’s mom, the immunologist, working to cure her daughter. Her father, the comedian, who promises, after the discovery of a giant feather mysteriously lodged in Aza’s lungs, to slay Big Bird if that guy’s hanging out in her bedroom causing trouble. Home is an evolving array of coping mechanisms, everyone desperately full of love and longing for Aza, and desperately failing to express it directly. The family and Jason have taken the time to write lists of things they might want to say on the day Aza finally kicks it (an expression one could imagine Aza might use in an attempt to deflect the total sincerity with which she would be totally dead), considering that, if they wait, the words will probably fail them.

Aza’s chosen way of coping is neither science nor comedy, but sarcasm. Attempts at sincerely expressing certain concepts, such as love, generally involve writing the word, and then crossing it out, as if the only safe way to express a thing were to simultaneously negate both its importance and existence. Which is, perhaps, why she and Jason get along so well. He’s the guy who memorizes Wikipedia pages, researches fairy tales about skyships, or, if overwhelmed, will begin reciting pi. He’s also the sort of boy who will hack a video server and acquire the first ever footage of a totally alive and totally giant squid swimming through the ocean depths because he knows how much Aza, whatever her whatever-I'm-dying-get-over-it sarcasm might indicate, is actually very much in desperate need and want of a miracle. Or, as she puts it, "every time someone finds a new animal, or a new amazing thing on earth, it means we haven’t broken everything yet" (p. 17).

Magonia marks Headley’s first foray into YA; her other work includes a novel (Queen of Kings), several and occasionally Nebula-nominated short stories (have you read The “Scavenger’s Nursery” because you should go do that now if you haven’t), the anthology Unnatural Creatures which she co-edited with Neil Gaiman, and a memoir, The Year of Yes, recounting a year in which she said yes to every person who asked her out on a date. Her stories shudder with a fierce intelligence and vulnerable wit, as likely to surprise you with a ridiculous pun as to stop your heart with some new turn of metaphor. And some of that bristling, joyous language makes its way here, to her new book. After Aza has been stolen from the drowning world of earth and taken into the sky world of Magonia, from the vantage of her skyship she spies Jason letting go of a balloon at her funeral (Yeah, it’s a thing. Earth people think she’s dead). Aza imagines this moment from Jason’s vantage point, a boy mourning the death of his best and only friend:

That’s what always sucks about balloons. In your hand they’re big, but once you let them loose, they’re instantly tiny. (p. 91)

Those words say so much about Headley, about her writing, about what works best in Magonia. How, in the smallest moment, writer and character work together to reveal something of infinity, that which is endless in the cosmos or the heart.

Where I struggled with loving Magonia, it was not with Headley’s writing, or her characters, but with Magonia itself, and a sense that, despite its many facets (heartbirds, squallwhales, whirlwind capitals), it seemed more a sketch or a tracing than a fully shaded reality. I tired of the mechanics of situating Aza in this new world of flying ships (teaching her the ropes, her doubting the ropes exist). I tired of the hints at a possible love triangle involving a sky-bird-pirate-man, Dai (blessed with a wickedly sorrowful backstory), and Jason, who, back on Earth, inherits a somewhat inconsistent narrative arc (there’s a bit where he leaps ahead in time, and space, to catch up with Aza that left me feeling a bit unsatisfied) in which we follow his attempts to find and rescue Aza from this world which has stolen her away.

I wondered over my weariness a great deal. It may arise from Headley, with Aza, losing her way in the strangeness of Magonia—some of the reckless beauty and precise urgency of her prose are lost in describing, questioning, and coming to grips with this world in which Aza discovers her true parentage and bird person, um, ness. But also, perhaps, I believe it may come from my own over-exposure to stories of girls, or boys, being whisked away. Because that’s what we have here, in part—a standard Girl Whisked Away Story—or Come away, O human child! story if you prefer old Irish poets—much in the way of The Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan, or the Narnia books. Stories in which our heroines find themselves called to a life, and destiny, bigger than they imagined possible. Stories in which the worlds to which they are whisked have within them something broken which mirrors some fracture within the heroine’s own heart. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy assembles everything she needs to be a strong woman: intelligence, courage, and, yes, a heart. In Narnia, the children learn of sacrifice and the power therein, while, back in their home, soldiers and fathers fight and die.

A few things, though, save Magonia from just being another one of those stories. There are Aza and Jason, and their families, each and all built with love and care, bristling with their own particular hurt and humor. There are the hints of exploitation and general wrongness in our own world through repeated references to how we humans have imperilled our world and its climate. These references, too, are mirrored in the wrongness in the world of Magonia: the bat who didn’t seem to have a choice in being used as the ship’s sail, the caged songbirds, the servant class, the complications which arise in the savior tale Aza’s been handed by the sky pirate captain. Those complications, perhaps, might set up future, possibly more fantastic sequels in which some of the work of building the reality of Magonia might be dispensed with, or deepened.

The fact that this sort of narrative is a tad overdone is one, I think, that Headley, and more importantly Aza, knows. It’s why she has such hard time accepting it. Aza’s fighting the reality of the story sometimes got in the way of my wanting to believe and get on with it. But it’s also why, even as sometimes I tired of the whisked-away mechanics, I also read on with excitement, and hope, always waiting for another sentence, or paragraph, some surprising bit of alchemy in Headley’s prose that shocked me awake and made me put down the book for the pleasure of looking at the world with eyes made new.

There’s a scene, early in the book, when Jason shows Aza the footage of the giant squid. It’s a moment of not just first love, but first expressions of love. In attempting to express the depth of his feelings for Aza, Jason writes on a small bit of paper, "I { } you more than [[[{{{(( ))}}}]]]". It’s a beautiful depiction of how some words are too big to say, and how, in many ways, we are aware more of the frame, and the limits, of our feelings, than we may be aware of the feelings themselves. It’s only from her vantage point among the clouds, that Aza eventually grasps something of a deeper sincerity and appreciation for the fragile, indomitable spirit of her family and the whole broken world she left behind. The story brings her around to a place where she can express love without crossing it out, where she can fill in the spaces between parentheses with the substance of her feelings. It’s a hard lesson, with much uncool crying, but, I suppose, as it turns out, the old Irish poet had it right. To fall or soar among the faeries, if only for a brief time, is to learn, as Aza does, that the world we leave behind, of humans and our desperate love and longing, is more full of weeping than we can understand. But the thing I love about Aza and Jason is they’ll try anyway. To love. To hope. To understand. Because, seriously, what else are we supposed to do?

Chris Kammerud is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

Chris Kammerud’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Bourbon Penn, Phantom DriftInterfictions, and multiple times in Strange Horizons. He produces and co-hosts the short story discussion podcast Storyological. He is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and he holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi, where he studied as a Grisham Fellow. He lives in London with his partner. You can find him online at @cuvols or
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