OK, it’s a stretch but I’m detecting a micro-trend for bird-people in YA fiction.
First up is Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, a SFF writer already with solid credentials (cover puff by Neil Gaiman no less). There’s been a buzz around this book and rightly so: the premise is delicious, a girl, Aza Ray who ‘has a history of hospitals’ with cyanosis, weird lungs,a malformed heart and a scientist mother feeding her a secret serum to keep her alive. Until one day Aza sees a ship in the clouds and birds flocking on her lawn and hears a voice from the air calling her name.
All very intriguing, no? And based on a sort of medieval urban myth about a man who shimmies down a rope from the sky and dies, unable to breathe the air ‘down here’.
There is a sweet, geeky BFF-since-childhood turned love interest (is it jut me or does that happen a lot in YA fiction but rarely IRL) Jason.
Jason proves important, later, but back to Aza Ray. In the sky, floating through the wondrous air on an old-fashioned sailing ship, captained by her real mother, a Magonian–of whom she is apparently one–and crewed by another, slightly different race of Bird/Human hybrids named Rostrae who take a full bird form as they descend to Earth.
Magonians, so far as I can work out, look like us but with blue skin and hollow chests where they keep a sort of bird familiar in a manner reminiscent of Phillip Pullman’s daemon’s. They can sing magic with this bird familiar, though early demonstrations of this (magic deck-scrubbing) are somewhat underwhelming.
So far so cool. Read on at your own risk for HERE BE SPOILERS
But there’s little time for Aza Ray to enjoy herself (on a ship! in the sky! And she can breathe!) before she’s forced to diagram herself into a love triangle with a hot but initially hostile Magonian, save the ship from sky-pirates and discover the magic powers which her mother wants her to use to save their race (oh and destroy mankind though Mother doesn’t tell her that part! Sneaky!)
The pace picks up madly at this point, with the introduction of ANOTHER group of people called Breaths all sharing these somewhat crowded skies (not to mention the air traffic) who are sort of like evil zombies? Or generally A BAD THING, though useful as a plot device because they have (or make?) human ‘skins’ which they wear to pretend to be human: the means by which Aza Ray herself survived so long on Earth.
I was slightly confused at this point. But who cares? Because here’s Jason, nerdy BFF turned LI, racing to the Svarlbard Global Seed Vault (which really exists)
to rescue Aza and here is Aza singing rock into water and back again and here are ropes from the sky and attackers (pirates! Breaths! Magonians! ) and taking on a new Skin and returning to Earth to embrace her parents and sister but looking completely different!
Whew. The writing is good and spare, taking flight (ahem) where needed, the ‘real world’ elements grounded and believable. Aza and particularly Jason are well characterised but the sheer difficulty of sustaining the narrative through the realistic segments AND building a believable alternative sky-world left Magonia somewhat tangled up in blue, for me.
A solid 4/5 ****
Definitely worth reading for the inventiveness and beautiful writing. I really wanted this to be illustrated, because beautiful blue-skinned people, birds and skyships would have been awesome.
Next up is The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey. First of a new blockbuster YA fantasy trilogy about a human girl, Echo, raised by a mysterious race of bird-like supernatural beings named Avicen who live underground (no wings as far as I could tell) and are at war with the Drakharin, dragon-like beings ALSO with no wings.
Echo’s previous life as a neglected child turned thief is grounding and intriguing. Her snarky backchat and modern dialogue feels tired to me (but I’m too old for this book) However her love for the Ala, her Avicen foster mother is delicately portrayed and this girl’s spunky all right.
There are many episodes of lovely writing here! Unfortunately the description gets a little out of hand and overblown.
My main problem with the book was one I see in a whole lot of extremely successful kids and YA lit these days. In fact, I could write a whole thesis on it entitled WHY VIDEO GAMES HAVE RUINED KID”S BOOKS
But I won’t.
Briefly, Echo steals things from the human world for the Avicen by travelling through the ‘in-between’ using shadow dust and various other magical bits and bobs.
The Avicen look like us but with feathers for hair. The Drakharin likewise but with scaly skin. The Drakharin are mean, except for the prince, Caius, who has a lost love called Rose who was…Avicen! So he’s OK really, and he has a crush on Echo thus setting up those YA requisites, Love thine Enemy, Fall in love With Guy Hundreds of Years Older Than You and a love triangle that never goes anywhere.
Through a series of events, Caius and Echo, complete with sidekicks including loyal friend Ivy and wisecracking gay peacock Jasper hare off around the world to places like Kyoto, New York and Strasbourg (yes, Strasbourg) to collect objects, (a locket, a knife, a key) leading to the ultimate MacGuffin of THE FIREBIRD. THE ONLY THING THAT WILL STOP THIS CRAZY WAR.
(Have these people never heard of negotiation?)
Which brings me to:
THE BAD: (For me, anyhow, given that I’m old and remember life pre video games and Harry Potter )
The plot is a series of leaps to collect these ‘objects’ with some gritty violence thrown in.
****DON”T READ ON IF YOU MIND SPOILERS***
So it turns out Echo is an Echo! She IS the Firebird. Or contains it, or something. Just as Rose used to be! She uses her fire powers to stop the battle. BUT…
The war continues. In the sequel.
So this book was fun, but for me, the great main character and intriguing world were let down by schlocky romance and a plot that amounted to little more that just a bunch of kids running around finding things and stabbing people.
3/5 *** from me!
Back to the classics!
Basically this whole post is an excuse for me to recommend
Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce, which features magical houses, demon butlers and BIRD PEOPLE. Flora is the youngest member of the great house of Fydracaa and is left looking after her alcoholic father as her mother (the commanding General) and sister are in the army.
The Huitzil, who are the evil rulers of a neighbouring (Aztec type) state in Wilces alt-california (Califa) are guarded by the Quetzal or Birdies.The Birdies are the baddies but not the main focus of the story.
How Flora manages to save the House of Fydracaa, get her father to clean up his act and find her own Will makes a fabulous, entirely original fantasy adventure. And it’s funny.
It’s old (2007). It’s probably out of print.
But it is brilliant. Go read it.
Above: Poster from Kneehigh’s production of Angela Carter’s Nights at The Circus.