To begin with, this book seems to tread fairly familiar territory. The main narrator, Aza Ray, has defied all medical odds by surviving to be almost 16. A professional ill-person, she's been in and out of hospital constantly all of her life. Living with a rare respiratory problem, so rare that the medical world has named it after her, Aza is constantly breathless, vaguely blue tinted and starts every day knowing she could expire at any moment. She struggles to speak, to breathe, to walk. It doesn't appear to bother her much morale or personality wise- she's just getting on with being a teenager and playing the 'Dying girl in class' role as dramatically as she can manage. Even from the first page, the reader has to admire her attitude.
Firstly, I loved the character and the voice of Aza. She's witheringly sarcastic, sharp as anything and impressively clever. She's taking dying in her stride. Her best (only?) friend Jason is appealingly weird too- spouting facts and snippets of trivia, inventing things, creating ciphers...the two of them are completely on the same wavelength and it's obvious from the beginning that they're meant for each other, even if one is a ticking time bomb of fatal mystery lung ailment.
Aza freaks out one day during class when she claims to have seen floating ships in the sky, calling her name. When she's calm, she writes it off as hallucinations, new meds- but isn't convinced by her own story. She's not the only one to have seen ships in the sky and Jason isn't the first to make the connection between these sightings and abnormal weather patterns. This was one of my favourite aspects of the book- the mythology, weather and magic mix. Jason really delves into the mythology of sky-objects and freak weather (raining frogs etc) and does his research really thoroughly. He falls down a Wikipedia manhole well and truly, as each discovery leads to a new question or a new answer- all adding up to something more than a hallucination.
The novel shifts its horizons suddenly and shockingly when Aza dies on her way to the hospital after an episode- surrounded by her family and a distraught Jason, she slips out of the world and into another. The book then develops into something that's a fantasy whirlwind of mystical bird-people, sky pirates and hidden worlds. The ship communities, with their unyielding laws, intimidating, corrupt captains and ruthless lifestyles are reminiscent of Philip Reeve's Predator Cities, with the Daemons of His Dark Materials (re-imagined as canwrs, internalised bird harmonisers and companions) and with the whole Gaiman-ish question of "What if other worlds were hiding from us in plain sight, and we're just not looking in the right places?". It's Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy for The Fault in Our Stars generation really. Though some elements feel familiar, they add up to a very original concept and a really believable world that has its own struggles and politics. There's something quite 'Return to Oz' about it. The reader gets the impression that Aza has been called home at kind of a bad time. I also really liked that the Magonians' use singing as a sort of life-force. I don't really get it, being a certified non-musical-human, but it's a new one. Like a musical Chi.
I really, really liked the characters in this novel. They all had their little quirks and personalities, and even if they didn't feature for a huge chunks of time in the narrative, it felt like they continued existing away from the action. They were real, and completely tied up in the story. I was moved by Aza's relationship with her family too- she knew her illness took its toll on them but she always tried to stay strong for them. The book conjured a real life family, with it own complications- the idea that mothers can be partially absent through work, but still fiercely loved. That sisters are your best friend and source of most of your earthly frustration, and that Aza's father is an absolute hero to her. So many YA books have their protagonists risking their lives for their significant other- it's nice here that the author remembers that family is worth fighting for too and she's determined to get back to them. Aza's family were so supportive and unflappable- the scenes of them, and Jason, at her funeral were properly heartbreaking.
I loved the book's eco message about climate change and the destructive, pollutant-riddled lifestyles that we've pursued on Earth. It reminds us that there are bound to be consequences of our industry and appliances. There is a bit of a tendency in much Sci-Fi to set up a non human species in opposition to humans based on their unsustainable habits or generally destructive nature, but you can't deny that we, as a species, have a bit of a problem with that. However, the Magorians' use of slaves can hardly go without disapproval. No society has it totally worked out, obviously.
I hope it's the beginning of a series. This novel was a very personal journey of self-discovery and identity for Aza- she got a lot of her questions about herself answered, but now she needs to find out which world she really belongs in and what her presence there means. Whichever world she's meant for- what's her role? Why that world and not the other? I'm very much looking forward to an all out war between the Magonians and the Drowners, which, even now, feels almost inevitable.