looks like i am the only one who didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with this book. i did fall pretty hard for the cover, but it takes more than a pretty face to win me over…
it has many good qualities: story set in a wholly original fantasy world, families who are supportive and loving that seem realistic rather than idealized, strong imagery and situations that aren’t just warmed-over versions of other YA books, romance where the two participants are apart for most of the book, so we don’t have to read about all the gazing and fumbling and stammering, debilitating illness written sympathetically and vividly…
i just didn’t think the actual story was developed as well as the characters. i never felt the tension i was meant to feel during the actiony events, and beyond the two main characters: aza and jason, none of the other characters were more than foils or obstacles, and overall the fantasy elements were not as well-realized as the realistic ones.
aza has been severely sick her whole life with a respiratory condition so rare that it has actually been named after her, and whose cause and treatment has baffled every last specialist. she is nearly sixteen, much older than she was ever expected to live, when she begins seeing visions of ships in the clouds and hearing something whistling and calling her name. assuming these are hallucinations brought on by one of her medications, she freaks out less than she might ordinarily, until the evening she is visited by an assortment of BIRDS (if you know how i feel about birds, you know how alarming this is), after which she collapses and dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
when she wakes up, she is aboard the very ship she has been “hallucinating,” high in the air, where she is re-introduced to her people, because – turns out, she’s not from “our” world, she is from magonia, and it’s the air on the earth that has been killing her. and there’s no specialist for that.
so aza learns about her culture and their rituals, and the BIRD that belongs in HER CHEST and that she is a very special girl with a very special destiny. because YA. however, she has left behind her parents and sister, as well as her best friend-with-possibilities, jason, and even though they all think she’s dead, and she has finally found a place where she can breathe, she’s torn between two worlds.
and jason, for one, doesn’t believe she’s really dead.
this one got off to a rocky start for me, because from the outset, i was not a fan of aza’s voice. i think she was meant to come off as tough in the face of death or something, but her brittle snark was irritating. her illness was horrible, and i’m not downplaying her struggle, but i also don’t automatically canonize the afflicted and i think that when people are bitchy and then say things like “Calling the sick girl names? Please. We all know it’s not okay” – it’s not fair. if you’re going to antagonize people and be provocative, you’re gonna get some back, sick or not – no special treatment in high school politics.
but after a while, i got into it, and once jason was introduced, it got a bit better. although it’s still “what if john green kids were even more precocious,” and they don’t read like sixteen-year-olds, it’s still a really lovely relationship, and i thought headley did a nice job turning that friendship into maybe-more without it getting all goopy. despite sounding older and being more capable than their years (booking flights, tossing off profitable inventions and having factories in their arsenal, having access to seeecret footage of squids, etc..) i thought the bones of their friendship rang true – nerdy social outcasts finding each other and bonding over pi and the OED. it’s very sweet and charming.
i also loved the descriptions of some of the creatures in magonia. not the heartbirds (shudder) or bird-people (bigger shudder), but batsails, squallwhales, stormsharks?? yes pretty please! Can anything I will ever hear from now until the end of time sound cooler than stormsharks? probably not. but that’s the thing – a lot of the magonia stuff was just window dressing without a lot of depth. we don’t even get to spend any time with stormsharks, they are just a passing detail.
the strengths of this book are completely terrestrial – aza’s family, jason’s family, and their unshakeable friendship. the fantasy is blurry, the avatar-level eco-preach unnuanced, and the story a little flimsy. i’ll read the second one, in the hopes that book two will have way more stormsharks, but i didn’t swoon over this one the way it seems the rest of the world did.