A well written book isn’t the same as a well told story. That’s the first important lesson I learned as a writer: the distinction between writing and storytelling.
Now that I’m both a reader and a writer taking a shot at fiction, I value story and structure more than writing style because the former is a tad more difficult to master than the latter. I don’t judge books on the simplicity of writing but instead focus more on how well it draws me in and how good its story is.
When I read Magonia, I realized that while a great writing style may not redeem a bad story *cough Daughter of Smoke and Bone cough*, bad writing can doom a potentially good story on the very first chapter.
Since she was a baby, Aza Ray Boyle 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 the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?
A little background on this fairly obscure book (and how I came to learn of it). Magonia came out sometime in 2015 and got people’s attention mostly because of it’s pretty cover and the Neil Gaiman blurb. It made the rounds of Bookstagram and even BookTube, especially as a book subscription box featured it at some point. I was quite intrigued with the book so I kept an eye out for it in bookstores.
Did I find it a bit odd that I heard almost nothing about the book soon after it made a modest splash in the book community? Sure, but considering how many YA fantasy books were vying for people’s attention then, I just assumed that Magonia didn’t strike much of a chord in most readers. I figured that it was a mediocre book at the very least. Or it was a story that readers had seen too many times before. When I started reading it earlier this month, I made it halfway to the first chapter when I realized that this book wasn’t mediocre. It was bad. I was completely detached from the story as I read (and, honestly, mostly skimmed) the rest of the book.
Worse still, it was clear as day why I couldn’t care about the story. The writing was extraordinarily incompetent. Magonia was riddled with flaws that seemed like they had fairly easy fixes. By the end of chapter 1, my head was reeling at how bad this book’s writing was. No tea, no shade but this book read like that abhorrent book that scammed its way to the New York Times Bestseller, only considerably less of an obvious wish-fulfilment fantasy.
What really struck me though was the fact that Magonia had such potential. It had an interesting story to offer but just didn’t have the means to tell it effectively. I mean, for a contemporary fantasy, Magonia’s worldbuilding was so barebones that I couldn’t even visualize the main character’s normal world let alone the world of Magonia. The writing didn’t and couldn’t carry the novel’s lofty magical setting. Somehow the book made a literal ship sailing across the skies dull. I’ve got a lot to talk about Magonia’s writing and because I don’t have the fortitude to go over the entire 300-page book, I’m just going to focus on the 1st chapter, which was emblematic of all my issues with the book anyway.
Before anything else, I’d like to give a brief disclaimer: obviously, I’m not a professional or anything, just a humble avid bookworm. This whole thing is based on my own personal opinion, preference, and understanding of writing in general. If you enjoyed the book, more power to you. I didn’t and I’m the type of reader who likes dissecting why I couldn’t like a certain book. It’s how I learn how I want to write future stories of my own. I’m certain that a lot of work and love was put into this novel but I just feel like it’s not the best that it could have been. And that’s what really gets me.
Chapter 1: Dead on Arrival… or We Get it Aza, You’re Sick
Credit where credit is due: Magonia‘s opening line was pretty good. We get a quick and simple:
My history is hospitals.
From the summary, I already know that the main character is a chronically ill teenager so this line is a solid enough introduction. Intriguing and with just a hint of gravitas. It’s a bit pretentious too but when you’re a teenager who’s been in and out of hospitals for as long as you can remember, you’re allowed to be a bit dramatic about it, especially in your own internal monologue. Again, not a bad opening line.
Unfortunately, the next paragraph kind of ruined whatever energy the first line gave off. Apparently this is the line that the main character, Aza, uses to deter any conversation about her disease with a stranger. It’s… well, just look:
Listen. I understand what the text was going for here. It wanted to establish Aza as this astute, sardonic teenager who’s been sick all her life and also really sick of having to explain her condition to other people, especially ones that don’t actually care. The intent, yeah, that makes sense and is actually a pretty great way to introduce the main character. The thing here though is that… the execution, this “imagined” exchange right here, the one that apparently happens so many times that Aza has a song and dance prepared, it doesn’t work. At least, I can’t see how it can work.
For one thing, I fail to see how saying “I just have a history of hospitals” would be enough to make people so uncomfortable that they’d have to stammer a reply. A line like that seems to invite more questions than anything. Even with a deadpan delivery – “freaky face” is… confusing – I can’t really imagine anyone being so uneasy with that purposely vague line that will make Aza come out the victor. Now, I’m an extremely awkward person to have a conversation with and even I could probably navigate this exchange without getting all tongue tied. The whole thing is just weird and cringey and honestly not even that witty when put in that context.
If Aza really wanted to make the Person in Question squirm, she could have added “I have a history of hospitals… and it’s most likely not gonna be a long history either lmao” You know, a fatalistic joke. Young people nowadays have a very fatalistic sense of humor – living in a world that’s on the verge of being consumed by hellfire will do that to you – and a girl like Aza who’s brushed against death so many times that they’re practically close acquaintances would have developed such humor.
Or, if Aza really wants something with more of a punch, she could have gone into more detail, turn the tables. Something like “My lungs and other internal organs aren’t where they’re supposed to be and can’t seem to do what they need to – you tell me what’s wrong.” That’s a dumb line too but at least it’s more realistic in terms of shutting people up.
Aza’s imagined conversation is neither fatalistic humor or a biting remark. It’s bizarre and stilted and it makes Aza seem more like she has no idea how humans actually speak rather than make her look like a spunky and jaded sick girl.
Less than a page in and I’ve already started to lose faith in this book’s ability to give me a decent reading experience.
I lost faith even further when, for the next three to four pages, Aza repeatedly makes the same point a dozen times over. This girl seriously tells us the same line a page later. Look:
What I can only surmise here is this overly extended passage is meant to convey to us readers that Aza is well aware that she reminds people of their own mortality but also that she’s not exactly happy about it. Why it took Aza like four pages to make that one point is beyond me. It’s not exactly a difficult concept to grasp, you know?
I also assume all of that was meant for us to get a feel of Aza’s blunt and quirky personality. Honestly, the book didn’t need to waste so much time on that either.
At some point, Aza finally gets to talking about her extremely rare condition. It’s so rare, in fact, that medial professionals worldwide have never seen anything like it. Doctors even name the condition the Azaray Syndrome, after our main character, Aza Ray Boyle.
Pause for a moment. Wouldn’t it have been a hundred times better if we opened with this little factoid about Aza? I mean, this is literally the most interesting aspect about the character so far. If I was told that Aza’s condition is so unusual and unique that doctors had to name it after her just to classify it, I’d be more than intrigued. I’d be excited to read on and learn about this Azaray Syndrome. Heck, Aza’s annoyance at having her condition named after her without her permission would have given us a better idea on her personality than four pages of navel gazing.
Aza goes on to say that even with her “fucked up” life, she’s not actually depressed. Just fucked up. And it’s at this point where I can hold back no longer. Aza Ray Boyle is a discount Hazel Grace Lancaster (from The Fault in Our Stars). I know that a terminally ill teenage girl isn’t exactly groundbreaking but the fact that these two characters have so much in common is hard to ignore. Heck, they both even have three names. Plus, The Fault in Our Stars opens with Hazel Grace telling us that her mother suspects that she’s depressed even though she doesn’t think so. Hazel is who Aza was meant to be: clever, sharp witted, extremely self-aware. However, while Hazel feels like an actual teenage girl – albeit with an overly pretentious vocabulary common in John Green books – Aza hardly even seems like a person. She sure as hell doesn’t talk like one.
But I digress.
Aza gives us a better idea what her condition entails and, honestly, it is fascinating and I would have loved to learn more about it if only this book wasn’t so strangely uninterested in it.
Again, if the chapter opened with those two sentences, this book would have been greatly improved. “My lungs stopped being able to understand air” is a good hook, in my opinion. It’s simple enough to believe as a medical condition but just vague enough to be suspected as something a little more. Seriously, I can’t emphasize just how better this would be as the first two lines of the chapter.
There’s a little bit of detail on her condition and the way she describes it, it really does seem like such an odd disorder. Her organs are out of place and aren’t doing what they’re meant to do yet she’s still alive. Very strange.
Aza even secretly believes that she wasn’t meant to be human what with her lungs literally working against her. And this idea right here would have been so cool if Aza elaborated further but you know what’s more interesting? HER UPCOMING 16th BIRTHDAY PARTY.
What really irks me about this abrupt segue is that her birthday isn’t even all that important to the story. We skipped over Aza’s suspicion on not being meant to be human to raise a topic that doesn’t even contribute much to the overall story. It doesn’t even seem like it’s on purpose either, like Aza actively doesn’t want to think about this secret suspicion of hers; it just seems like lazy exposition.
But you know what’s even more abrupt? So we’re subjected to Aza’s drier than the Sahara dessert humor right? Well, literally out of nowhere, we’re in her high school. Aza’s internal monologue came to a screeching halt so the action could officially start. What. Even.
No section break or anything. We’re just in a scene now. I’d like to point out – if it isn’t entirely obvious already – up to this point, there wasn’t a single hint of motion from the POV character. There was no indication that Aza was thinking all of this in the story’s present time. From the very beginning of the chapter, I was under the impression that the text was in a sort of vacuum, an intro to the real life of Aza Ray Boyle. So when the chapter throws me this paragraph right here, hastily establishing a time and a place (however scant), as well as Aza’s actions , I was discombobulated. Have we been in school this entire time? What is going on?
In the author’s defense, you don’t technically need to provide a detailed description of a common enough place – a high school isn’t exactly a fresh setting in a YA book – but… a little warning (or a section break) would have been nice. Aza spent ages talking about death but couldn’t be arsed to draw breath and give us a clue where we are? And if she’s that weary about school, couldn’t she have mused about not wanting to be trapped in school for eight hours?
And if that isn’t bizarre enough, check out how Aza’s best friend Jason is introduced.
There’s literally no physical description of Jason, no line of dialogue, nothing. Jason, mind you, turns out to be a secondary main character. He even has POV chapters! And this is how we meet him for the first time. Sure, there’s a bit more info about him, mostly how he’s such a great friend to Aza but it’s all just telling, no actual showing. It’s so weird too because apart from the first paragraph, it’s difficult to picture Jason actually there in the scene. We aren’t given any sensory descriptions, no interesting quirk that defines him, no anecdote that Aza recalls every time she sees him, nothing. We’re just told that he’s a great best friend.
(Also, real quick: “doesn’t acknowledge me with his face” bothers me so much because she could have just said “we fist bumped wordlessly, as always” and the passage wouldn’t have been so awkward. Too many words that don’t give us the right picture, Aza!)
What’s worse is that the next character we do meet gets a paragraph of description as well as a hint of that character’s personality. This girl, Jenny, doesn’t even show up again after this scene. A literal throwaway character gets a better introduction than the secondary main character. Why.
Also the chapter gives us this random bit where Jenny mockingly blows a kiss at Aza who in turn flips her off. Seeing as this is Jenny’s one and only scene, I don’t understand why the book spent any energy at all. Ok, Aza is bullied in her school, that’s what Jenny is for, the Mean Girl. But it goes absolutely nowhere that its inclusion on the first chapter is meaningless.
Somehow Aza’s still walking down the hall and peeks through her sister’s classroom door. Her sister, Eli, spots her and Aza does a silly little dance which she tells us that she can do without shame what with the whole sick girl privilege. Which… ok, Aza.
Then, finally, Aza’s in class. And after 14 pages, we finally – FINALLY! – have our first line of dialogue. An actual line said by an actual person, not just an imagine conversation by Aza.
Maybe it’s just a personal preference but, for me, a chapter feels pretty static until at least one character says something either to themselves or to someone else. Dialogue kind of confirms that there is indeed living and breathing fictional people in this story. When it took Magonia more than 10 pages to get to its first line of dialogue, it really just emphasized how flat and unnerving the chapter was. Not gonna lie, on my first read, I was getting impatient. When Jason did us the honor of showing this book’s first sign of life, suffice to say, it was a bit lacking.
Also, yes, Aza is yet again thinking about her birthday party, even going as far as reminiscing her fifth birthday party where Jason gatecrashed it wearing an alligator costume. I know that should tell us something about Jason but, for the life of me, I just can’t be convinced that he, too, is an actual character in this book. Aza repeatedly telling us just how close they are as best friends actually feels rather forced. It’s like the book didn’t have enough pages to squeeze in scenes that would have shown us Aza and Jason’s bond. If Aza didn’t spend half of the first chapter rambling about nothing of consequence, maybe there’d have been pages to spare.
Side note, Aza’s English teacher, Mr. Grimm – very subtle, by the way – ALSO gets some description. He’s quite a fleshed out character too with several paragraphs of physical description. This chapter, nay, this scene is also the FIRST AND LAST we see of Mr. Grimm.
Anyway, Aza’s called out by her teacher for accidentally laughing during a quiz. And before I go on, it literally took me several rereads to get that they’re having a quiz in that scene because Jason’s reading a book and Aza never mentions answering a test paper or something. In fact, a page or so before, Aza says that she doesn’t have to listen to Mr. Grimm’s lecture because she already read the book… but then it turns out the whole class was taking a quiz? What the… when did that happen?
But anyway, there’s a little back and forth between Mr. Grimm and Aza Ray. It’s the first actual conversation in this book and it’s, well, not good, folks.
I don’t really mind that Aza’s invoking her Dying Girl card to make the situation uncomfortable for everyone. In fact, I understand why she’d do it and kind of respect her boldness. What I do mind is how awful her delivery is. She didn’t have to use that many words if she wanted to leave a bite. She could have just answered “Oh I was just thinking about dying.” Keep it nice and quick.
Mr. Grimm doesn’t take the bait and asks Aza to elaborate in what context she was thinking about. I’d like to remind you that they’re supposed to be in the middle of a quiz while this whole thing is happening. Aza doesn’t come up with a good enough bullshit – though let’s be fair, it’s not as if she’s that much of a smart aleck – and, embarrassed, “illegally” calls her teacher by his first name to throw him off guard or something. Doesn’t work, no surprise there.
Anyway, the chapter is in it’s last page, thank god. Aza sees a ship floating in the sky outside their classroom but Mr. Grimm tells her that it’s just a storm coming. But then Aza hears someone calling for her and the chapter mercifully ends.
I once said in a review for a two-star book that a good story will shine through no matter how weak and ineffective the writing is but Magonia has had me reevaluate that statement.
Beyond the awkward lines, the poor excuse of humor and wit, and the odd choice to prioritize Aza’s excessive contemplation over literally anything else, the writing is just straight up inept. And I don’t understand why when it didn’t have to be. Magonia isn’t the author’s first book and it’s even published by a major publishing company. Were there no editors or beta readers involved in this project? No one said anything about the confusing first chapter alone? Usually, readers will skim the first chapter in a book store before deciding to buy it and yet, somehow, the team behind this book was so confident in Magonia’s opening chapter despite basically nothing happening in the first five pages? I know that there’s no one way to write a story but…. really? That’s how they want to introduce this fantasy novel?
The writing was so blundering, it weighed down the entire book. The worldbuilding was so abstract that there’s hardly anything to latch on to; the characterizations were lackluster at best and nonexistent at worst; and the action scenes… dear god, I’ve never been more confused by what’s going on in a scene in my entire life.
Now, playing the devil’s advocate here, let’s say that the author purposely wrote the story in such a vague and unnatural way to give readers a dream-like feel. Maybe we’re supposed to question whether or not the events are real? Maybe we’re meant to be confused and discomfited the entire time?
The problem with that is there is no indication that the story is meant to be read anything but straight. This is no Haruki Murakami book where reality is inexplicably warped and the main character has no choice but to keep moving lucidly. Magonia is just a really lifeless fantasy.
The real tragedy is that Magonia had a potentially good story if it wasn’t buried under so much rubble. The idea of swashbuckling sky people soaring through the clouds on their flying ship could have been a really great story. Even with an obnoxious protagonist, such a premise could have worked. If only it was written better.
As far as my Book Talks go, this one is pretty… unorganized. Not that I’ve always observed a strict order in this series but I feel like I’ve just been rambling with this one. Sorry about that. I had plenty of things I wanted to talk about but I didn’t know how to put them all together.
Anyway, I hope I didn’t come across as too mean or elitist with this post. I really do believe that writers can tell their story in whatever creative way they want but in this case I just feel like a couple of rewrites and edits could have helped this book be the best version that it could have been. There’s so much fat to trim in the first chapter alone that it’s really frustrating to me as a writer and editor.
Now here I pass the question off to you: what did you think of Magonia? And if you haven’t read it, based on the snippets I used in this post, would you want to read it? This book has a kind of balance between 4-5 stars to 1-2 stars so it’s quite polarizing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.