Here we go again.
So again, I have to ask: have you ever bought a book or purchased a movie or settled in to watch a TV show, relishing in the promise that its opening pages or moments, that what you are about to experience is a sumptuous meal of entertainment?
Only to be later disappointed.
You don’t regret that you experienced what you did, mind, but the fact that you were left underwhelmed by something you didn’t think would underwhelm you is enough to leave a bad taste in your brain.
I kinda had this issue with The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was here.
Magonia by Margaret Dahvana Headley was indeed promising when I picked it up, but for all of its creativity in its concepts, its setting, its mythology of a race of beautiful bird-people who live in a country in the sky called Magonia, at the same time it was actually very disappointingly barebones. Not only that, but the concluding sequel Aerie, felt really rushed at the end. Like it worked, and I’m not saying it didn’t make me feel things–I’m not even saying I didn’t like it, because I did–but…to be honest, it almost felt like it’s like a dessert that you’re trying, and at first it tastes really great, but then later it doesn’t quite satisfy your sweet tooth like you thought it would.
Which is a shame considering the first book got a praiseful blurb from Neil Gaiman. And anything Gaiman praises is always worth my time.
But…I felt like it could have been so much more. And the ending, while poetic, didn’t really tie up enough loose ends for it to be a conclusion. In my opinion, anyway.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, meanwhile, was so lush and rich and vibrant. It took its time, and with fantasy and sci-fi you kinda have to. Fantasy and sci-fi, in my experience, really don’t lend themselves to minimalist writing. Even like say, in the Earthsea books by Ursula K. LeGuin, those books aren’t particularly verbose and packed with purple prose, but I still feel the story has enough meat and flavor thanks to LeGuin’s skills as a wordsmith.
At least, for my personal taste, a minimalist style is a detriment to those genres when crafting stories for them. To be sure, in a fantasy or sci-fi short story, keeping things to a minimum is a must-do as a means to prevent overwriting, as in any writing, otherwise the short story’s no longer short. But despite the conciseness that’s demanded more of short stories and novellas than novels, there’s still a way to paint a rich picture with details dropped in succession like colored marbles into a glass bowl out of the writer’s hand without feeling like something’s…missing, or rather, not quite fully formed enough to appreciate it in the narrative.
Magonia and Aerie are both supposed to be novels (short novels, but novels). And while Aerie, as a sequel, in addition, did its job in part by expanding the world, that too was very minimalistly done in my opinion, and I’m kinda disappointed.
Not to knock Magonia or its sequel or anything, as I said I did like them. I enjoyed reading both books, but let’s just say that Daughter of Smoke and Bone gave me the best surprise 6+hour airport layover I’ve ever had (and keep in mind that at the time I was also desperately sucking on lozenges for a god-awful sore throat I later treated with Dayquil once I made it home to hibernate).
Magonia meanwhile, for its very engaging and moving romantic subplot, that same romantic subplot too took a turn that had me gnashing my teeth in frustration throughout a majority of the story in Aerie.
*SPOILERS AND RANTING INCOMING*
Like, I get that Jason made a poor judgment call in an effort to protect our heroine, Aza Ray, one that resulted in rather disastrous consequences, and Aza Ray had every right to be pissed at him, but seriously, girl? Just because of this ONE thing, you think that this whole time that boy was only ever pretending to love you? After all the crap you two had been through?
Dude, don’t be an idiot.
That’s always been a pet peeve of mine in storytelling: someone does something really bad with the best of intentions, and then something bad happens because of that (at times even something they hadn’t imagined would even happen in the first place) and the other person is like “YOU ARE SATAN!!!” It’s like whoever’s writing the story gets that the person would be mad (and they should be) but they take it to a ridiculously simple extreme. (*sigh* Sorry, I try really hard not to infer authorial intent if I can help it.)
Here’s where I’ve seen it done better IMHO: in the movie Alita: Battle Angel (a very awesome movie I might add), something similar goes down, and when our heroine Alita finds out what her bae did, yeah she’s mad, but she’s also conflicted, no less about the fact that cyborgs are actively trying to kill her bae. And she makes it clear that while she’s angry with him, she hardly wants to see him die either.
Cuz that’s what love is supposed to be: complicated. You can be mad at someone you love, but also not completely hate their guts the minute they screw up (even if that’s what you scream at them, and one could argue that you hate them more because they’re someone you love). There are layers to this of course, everyone deals with these things differently, the love you felt for a person who did you wrong can get buried underneath all that anger to the point that you forget you felt that way but…not in the span of a minute.
Like, at first, Aza’s pissed, so mad that she cuts off her communique with Jason immediately. But then shortly thereafter you have Jason languishing in a mental institution for a beat, and all the time Aza, after she’s had a minute to think on her own, doesn’t even consider that he made an honest mistake. Like yeah, he totally wanted all these terrible things to happen to you. You’ve known him since you were five, surely you know him better than that!!!
I really truly get what was supposed to come across here, but the way it was done it just frustrated me. I wanted to be left with hope that the two of them would reconcile. I realize the idea was supposed to leave the reader feeling as devastated as Aza did, as Jason did for what happened, but…I shouldn’t have to flip to the back of the book to make sure they do actually reconcile. I should have this sense that despite this hurtle, our lovers are both strong enough to overcome it and have faith in each other.
That’s it, it was her lack of faith in him that had my teeth on edge. I mean, this guy saved her last book, but then this happens in the sequel and she immediately drops that the minute he screws up? This from a guy who so far as I could tell, had never once screwed up before? It just…felt…. It just didn’t make sense to me for her to do that. Again, this is all really just me if I’m being honest.
Ugh, maybe I just get prickly because my own romantic sensibilities are so, well, sensitive.
And I could go on and on about this in another blog post, so I’ll leave things off here for now.
Now, I have no problem with the concept of also using minimalism to get an idea across and then let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. And to be sure, Dahvana Headley gives some beautiful descriptions, especially of the Magonians themselves.
In Aerie though, I found the descriptions of new characters like Aza’s father lacking. I know the Magonians were described in the first book, and beautifully so. And enough that even with what wasn’t described in any amount of detail, the image of the Magonian characters could reasonably be completed by my own imagination. But Aza’s father is being introduced as a new character, and…when he entered the story, I felt like I was given nothing but literally the color gray. I’m aware of the bizarre physicality in general of Magonians, but knowing that and then just being given the color gray as a descriptor caused me to see him in my mind as a vague gray shape. Was he likened to an eagle or something? Maybe there was a detail I glazed over. At least Wedda was likened to an owl to give an idea of what her face looked like, and Jik was likened to a more colorfully exotic bird. With Aza’s father though, I felt like I was given almost nothing. Which is a shame because I had expected this to be a plotpoint in Aerie, and my father-daughter heart had been looking forward to getting to that.
Heyward’s death almost feels like, looking back, just a means to take her out of the story. It’s beautifully crafted as death scenes go, but….
Okay, so, to begin with, her true identity was that of the human baby that Aza had been swapped with. It’s established that Aza is not related by blood to the family she thought was her parents and her little sister Eli, and when we find out who Heyward is, there’s so much that you could do with that. You could have her meet the family she had lost, you could explore more of how she and Aza are bound by the fact that they were switched as infants–and it seemed like they were going that way when Heyward joins team Aza in the sequel and helps her escape the clutches of this secret government agency focused solely on exposing the sky nation of Magonia. But after like one chapter where Aza’s still brooding about Jason, and Heyward’s difficulty breathing the Magonian air, they’re attacked and Heyward’s killed protecting Aza. Like, nice gesture and all, but there was so much more they could have shared as well as done with Heyward’s character. They have like, one conversation about who Heyward is, and the idea of her parents and little sister distantly aware of a daughter that they didn’t know for the longest time they had lost, but that’s it. After that, boom, Heyward’s dead. I had this sense when I was first introduced to her in the first book that her character would go to these aforementioned places, even just one of them, and there’s reference to an image of Aza’s mother–Heyward’s mother–looking up at the sky, tragically destined to never meet her biological firstborn as Aza reflects after Heyward dies.
I just felt like there was an opportunity wasted there.
There’s a race of fantastic treelike dwellers of the ground, a sort of opposite of the Magonians in the sky. While Magonians live in the sky, these beasts based on tings like mandrakes and salamanders (maybe?), live in the ground near the heat of molten magma. And we see these creatures once, when Jason and Aza’s sister Eli get captured by them, and they escape, and that’s it. Never revisited again.
In the first book the reader’s introduced to Aza and Jason’s teacher Mr. Grimm (he he he) and it’s hinted that he’s aware of the secret world that’s about to be revealed to the rest of the main characters, but that isn’t confirmed until Aerie. It turns out he’s the same as what Heyward was, a human who’d been raised in Magonia. Immediately after that he helps Jason escape the mental hospital…and gets killed (Okay those treelike creatures turn up one more time just do just that, kill Mr. Grimm, but other than that, never seen or mentioned again). And again, disappointed. It felt like build-up with a weak payoff.
There’s the city of Meganwetar, the capital of Magonia, and even though that’s where the final battle takes place, the most description we get is basically that it’s a giant cloud that looks like a bouquet of spirally buildings in a historic metropolis. The final battle itself is pretty epic and all, with thunder in the sky, the kind that calls for some symphonic metal, but even that feels a bit small because the actual ins and outs of the city it’s taking place at aren’t given much description. Like, even if we’d at least been to a smaller Magonian city similar to Meganwetar, that would have sufficed, because at least it would have established an idea of what these places are.
Like what are Meganwetar’s citizens like? How does living in a Magonian city compare to living in a Magonian ship? Cuz yeah, like I said, this is the first Magonian city that appears in the whole duology.
And yeah, that rushed college-essay ending. It’s beautifully written and all, again, and the final battle was fitting in terms of what happened, but…what about Jason’s moms? The last time we saw them, they were under the impression that their son had gone insane and had him committed. Never see them again, never see them reunite with Jason and deal with the aftermath of his escape to help Aza. And again, the impact of Mr. Grimm’s true identity and death is hardly touched on, if at all.
The minimalism was even evident in the characters. There were strong emotional beats to be sure, but apart from Aza and Jason, I really didn’t feel like I got to know anyone else, never mind that they’re not the main duo. Backstories are outlined, but it still felt barebones, just explained and explored a little, but not as richly as I’d have liked. I just couldn’t connect with them.
Here, let me bring up another book, The Girl at Midnight, the first in a trilogy by Melissa Grey. One could argue its basic concept is the same, a human girl finds herself among a race of bird-human looking people, called the Avicen. But they’re her found family, not a family she’s thrust into and has to build new relationships with. That comes in the form of her getting caught up in the centuries-long conflict between the Avicen, and another race called the Drakharin, who’re instead dragon-human looking people.
We explore the world through the odyssey our heroine, Echo, is put on, and sure there’s a final battle there that’s a bit thrown together. And there’s even a character that’s killed of quick, but her connection to the characters is more defined, and defined as one of a rival, which is a lot more interesting: an Avicen named Ruby, who fights with Echo’s tentative boyfriend Rowan (in that first love, not-sure-what-to-expect-from-being-in-love way) in the Avicen military, also is in love with Rowan. An considering that Echo is a human and not entirely welcomed by all Avicen, she’s understandably jealous.
But then in a fight later on, when Ruby is chasing Echo down as she’s been semi-labeled as a traitor, or at least a fugitive for sure, and Echo kills Ruby, but in that way of one inexperienced with killing–it was in the heat of the moment, she was fearing for both Rowan and the Drakharin she’s formed an alliance with, Caius.
She had decided to run back and help them when Caius had told her to run on ahead (wanting to protect her from the bloodiness of battle, ironically, in hindsight), and seeing Caius at Ruby’s mercy, Echo killed her without really thinking about it, running her through the back with a sword as if she forgot that doing that usually kills people. She’s shocked after, and it’s complex: she had a deep hatred for Ruby, and probably, if it had been reversed, Ruby would’ve killed her without a drop of remorse. But even so, Echo feels guilt and regret and grief over having killed her, especially given how it’s made clear that this also complicates her relationship with her still-boyfriend-at-the-time Rowan. What does it mean to have this rivalry with someone and then you accidentally kill them, the fact that you never hated them enough to kill them hitting you like a sledgehammer? And the guy you were fighting over, who loves you, sees you do it?
Even though Ruby, like Heyward, was brief in her presence in the story, I felt her death was more impactful in the way it was executed when I was reading it.
Meanwhile, the other characters in the Magonia duology, sort of just…floated around in the background, some of them allowed to step forward occasionally to the front and have a short dialogue with either Aza or Jason.
And Aza’s parents and little sister Eli.
Aza, being Magonian and not knowing it all her life until this point, spent most of her life as she knew it struggling with breathing in the human world, and everyone of course just thought she had some weird rare lung disorder or disease. Just as Heyward had difficulty breathing Magonian air, Aza had trouble breathing air down on the ground (though this does give us the opportunity to find out that there’re odd unhuman things about Aza’s anatomy, which is hinted at being more akin to that of a bird, i.e. a breastbone that’s found to be strangely arranged inside her, more like a bird’s than a human’s), so of course she gets the “sick girl” treatment. It’s a constant concern that the next time she has a respiratory attack, that’ll be the one that kills her. Naturally, her family takes particular care of her, her mother working tirelessly to find a cure for what she thinks is a disease slowly killing her child, her father often the one rushing her to the ER, her sister Eli being the loyal little sister type.
And with Eli being stronger physically because of Aza’s condition, to me she comes off as the one who’d do the punching if anyone tried to mess with Aza, like she has to be strong for both of them, which I did think was sweet. There are little things like an “I’m sorry list” that her father, Eli, and Jason try to give Aza when they think Aza’s dying at the begining of Magonia, and other nice moments, but not only did I not feel like I got to know them all that well, they felt way too perfect. It can be hard being a sibling to a terminally ill child. Often the sicker sibling by default gets more care and attention because they need that, and there are things the healthy sibling just has to tough out, and while they still love their sick sibling, we all get weak and let things like envy and frustration get the better of us (and apparently make us think the guy who’s loved us his whole life was apparently pretending, ugh!).
Eli doesn’t seem to have any personal issues like this though. Sure she’s an adolescent, so her being something like envious of how much of their lives revolve around Aza and her perceived illness probably isn’t as likely, or at least not as childishly expressed, but it doesn’t seem like she has anything of her own that she has to overcome in regards to how she relates to her sister. There’s the “I’m sorry” list I mentioned earlier, which in some ways addresses this, that there were times in the past where Eli might’ve been fed up with being the sister of a sick girl in some shape or form, but as far as the story happening presently is concerned, the family’s a little too perfect for me, in a way that makes the things that are being apologized for on that list feel not as convincing that these characters would have felt these things at all at one time or another.
I’m not saying they needed to be wildly dysfunctional or anything, that would’ve been too much too, but they just didn’t feel…flawed enough for me.
You’ve got Daughter of Smoke and Bone, set within a creative and beautifully described fantasy premise that exceeded my expectations for YA romance. I mean, again, Aza and Jason were adorable all things considered, but Echo and Caius from Girl at Midnight were even more than that, like up there with Allie and Zeke from the Blood of Eden books by Julie Kagawa, or Mariko and Okami from Flame In the Mist by Renee Adieh.
But Karou and Akiva. OMG the feels.
I guess what I’m trying to say–in a very long way–is that the experience I’d had reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone is what I wish I’d had reading the Magonia duology too, and I just needed to vent my disappointment for that. Maybe it was the snag in the romance that had me go on that rant earlier. Maybe I’m just trying to understand why there are books out there that are good, either by conventional or objective standards, great even, and you can enjoy them too, but just not as much as you thought you would, and it tears you up inside because you don’t know how to feel one way or the other.
From the way I’ve torn into it, you’d probably think I hated it, and again, I did not hate it. I enjoyed it. But I enjoyed it, for what it was. That’s the thing. I can’t just say I enjoyed it, I can’t just I loved it: I have to add that little asterisk.
Ah well. If you loved and adored Magonia, I could totally see why you did. And would agree with you on most things about it. When I first started it, I blew through half the book in a like an evening, it was indeed a breath of fresh air, and I do think that bookshelves are better for having these two books included on them. I would rather live in a world where these books existed and I had read them, than in a world where they didn’t and I hadn’t.
But I just can’t say I loved them.
And I’m just stuck on that.
Now, if you want to tell me something like “Captain Marvel is the worst movie ever”, we may need to have words.