REVIEW: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno Garcia
Please note: The following review contains some spoilers.
Dear Ms. Moreno-Garcia,
It was the setting of your new fantasy novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, that first caught my attention. I had never read a book set in 1920s Mexico before. This one also promised to feature a young woman on a quest with a Mayan God, and that sounded good too, so I took a risk and did something I rarely do: requested an ARC of a novel by an author whose books I had never read before.
Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets. Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament.
Eighteen-year-old Casiopea seems destined for a life of drudgery. Casiopea’s mother, once her grandfather’s favorite child, lost her father’s favor when she married Casiopea’s father because her new husband had Indian blood. After her gentle father passed away, poverty forced Casiopea and her mother to live under her grandfather’s roof in the village of Uukumil, in the Yucatan.
Now Casiopea scrubs the floors at her grandfather’s house, is expected to drop everything and run out to fetch her cousin Martin a box of cigarettes the instant he wants them, and serves as her grandfather’s maid, ironing his clothes, fetching his slippers and reading the newspaper to him. The newspaper articles fill her with dreams of doing some of the daring things city girls do—swimming at night, dancing in flapper dresses, driving a motorcar—but that life seems unattainable.
Casiopea’s grandfather has promised her mother and her a small bequest upon his death, and Casiopea puts up with everything partly because she has limited options and partly because she hopes the bequest will free her and her mother someday. Still, she can’t help but feel resentful, especially when her spoiled cousin Martin lords his power over her. Occasionally she snaps and loses her temper.
After one such incident, Casiopea is barred from joining her family on her grandfather’s monthly pilgrimage to a cenote whose waters are said to have healing properties. Casiopea has been looking forward to the trip, and her disappointment turns to bitterness when Martin informs her that her grandfather never had any intention of leaving her and her mother that bequest.
Casiopea’s grandfather has a mysterious black box in his room, one that Casiopea has never seen open. The key to the box is always around her grandfather’s neck at all times, except when he is on a trip to bathe in the healing waters. Since Casiopea is left alone at the house to stew in her justifiable anger, she has the opportunity to open the box and she decides to take it.
But the box does not contain the treasure Casiopea hoped for. Instead she finds bones and cuts herself on a bone shard. Her blood touches the bones, which reassemble into a skeleton and then into a man—or rather, a god. Hun-Kame, the Mayan god of death.
Strangely attractive, Hun-Kame is also fearsome. He explains to Casiopea that he was captured and confined to the box by his twin brother, Vucub-Kame, who thus stole his throne to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld kingdom. Casiopea’s grandfather assisted Vucub-Kame and was rewarded with the wealth he has today.
Hun-Kame promises to similarly reward Casiopea if she assists him in regaining his crown. He is missing his left eye, his ear and his index finger, although by magical means, he is no less handsome for these losses. Also missing is a jade necklace that contains his essence. If he doesn’t recoup these items, he will not be able to regain his crown. And even if he does recover them, he will still face a battle with Vucub-Kame at the end of his journey.
Casiopea must accompany him on his quest. The bone shard is now implanted under her skin and will drain her of her vitality and use it to nourish Hun-Kame. The only way to change this is to accomplish their goal. If they don’t succeed, Hun-Kame will likely be killed by his brother, while Casiopea’s life force will drain until she has none left.
So begins their journey—a journey that will take them from Merida to Veracruz to Mexico City to Baja, California, and ultimately to Xibalba itself. On the way a new world opens up to Casiopea, a world of hotels and pretty dresses, trains and casinos.
But even as she comes close to achieving her dreams, Casiopea loses her health and must make other sacrifices to help Hun-Kame. Most dangerous of all, she begins to fall in love with him. A god of death is no match for a young woman who wants to live with all her heart.
There’s so much to love about Gods of Jade and Shadow, so many great elements that come together into a wonderful whole. The setup is interesting and the book only gets better from there, with freshness and unexpected twists to the plot, and no plot holes or contrivances that I noticed.
Casiopea is a terrific heroine, strong-willed, rebellious and full of the desire to experience everything she has been denied. Her youth is apparent in her dreams but she is also pragmatic and practical. She is a kind of Cinderella figure, plucked from a life of cleaning floors into a glamorous journey, but the book never lets us forget it’s a journey that could cost Casiopea her life.
Casiopea is aware, too, of what the people back in Uukumil must be saying about her; that she ran off with a man. She has to figure out what her own beliefs are with regard to how a young, unmarried woman should behave and what is fitting, not just what the village priest would say.
Hun-Kame is almost as appealing.
Also found in the pages of this book are interesting side characters, from the charming yet possibly malicious demon, Loray, to Xtabay, a being from the underworld with femme fatale qualities, to the sinister magic users who assist Vucub-Kame in holding the throne. And of course, there’s Casiopea’s cousin Martin, sent by their grandfather and by Vucub-Kame to go after her, and spoiled, sullen and scared.
I mentioned the allure of the setting at the top of the review, and it is depicted in a satisfying way. Period details like flapper dresses, prohibition, and trains with dining and sleeping cars mingle with locale descriptions that include Veracruz’s colorful Carnival , the quiet Yucatan and the busy streets of Mexico City. The underworld of Xibalba is haunting and a bit frightening, perfect for the needs of the story.
It probably need not be said that the book is diverse, since Casiopea is Mexican-Indian, Hun-Kame Mayan, and many of the other characters are Mexican as well. There are no stereotypes as far as I can tell, and since Gods of Jade and Shadow is an #ownvoices novel, I assume (though not being of a Mexican background, I can’t judge it) that the representation is strong.
I loved the writing, too. The book is narrated in third person omniscient POV. This is not a POV style that’s popular nowadays, but when it’s done well, as it is here, it can be a magical experience. The omniscient narrator sometimes confides things about the characters that they themselves may not be aware of, and that adds to the dark fairy tale aspect.
My one nitpick is that despite his understandable reasons for his actions, Vucub-Kame was less interesting than most of the other characters, and I wasn’t as engaged by his relationship with Hun-Kame. While the sections set in Xibalba added to the atmosphere and I loved the eeriness of some of the creatures that populated it, including Vucub-Kame’s giant owl, I was more absorbed by the other parts of the book.
It’s hard to describe the tone of this book—it is an adventure, a heroic quest, a touching love story and a haunting journey toward a choice between death and life. For me, it’s a recommended read and an A-.
P.S. There is an acute accent over the E in “Kame,” the I in “Martin” and the E in “Merida” that I wish I could reproduce here.