Gods of Jade and Shadow
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey Books, 2019
In her newest release, Silvia Moreno-Garcia gives readers the glitz of the Jazz Age, south of the border. Gods of Jade and Shadow, based in Mayan mythology, tells the story of eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun, who unwittingly releases the rightful king of the underworld of Xibalba from his makeshift tomb in her grandfather’s home. Set on the Yucatán peninsula in the 1920s, the story braids together the familiar and the novel.
Comparisons to Cinderella will come quick to the mind when readers are presented with the downtrodden situation of the main character when we first meet her. Casiopea and her mother have lived in her grandfather’s lavish abode for years but receive none of the spoils of his wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact; they are expected to wait on their relatives while suffering verbal and physical abuse due to the family’s belief that the actions and background of the mother-daughter pair brand them as lower class. Casiopea yearns for the opportunity not solely to be free of this torment, but to finally experience the world beyond her small town:
She had looked up at the night sky far too often, trying to divine her future in the face of the pockmarked moon. Casiopea was a realist, but her youth made it impossible to remain rooted to the earth every second of the day. Once in a while she sneaked a line of poetry into her heart, or memorized the name of a star.
There are indeed several similarities between Casiopea and arguably the most famous of all fairy tale princesses. Both are trapped by family, both long to hear the click of their heels on the dance floor, and, most critically, both are deeply kind at the core. However, our leading lady is far more of a spitfire than Cinderella ever dreamed of being. She is rarely afraid to speak her mind or go against those with far more power than her own if she believes she is doing the morally correct thing. She is far from the vain and boastful queen of the constellation for which she was named.
This proves helpful and problematic for the former prisoner, the ousted ruler of the underworld Hun-Kamé. It is exclusively Casiopea’s lifeblood that sustains him in his partially human resurrected form, so she must accompany him on his quest to find three missing body parts he needs to obtain before regaining his full power and status. While he is kept alive by the fiery energy of our young protagonist, there is a serious time crunch factor. The longer the two are linked, the more human the god will become; if the situation goes on too long, he will absorb the life right out of her. He must find the lost appendages before he is made whole and can sever the link between them, at which point he will triumphantly reclaim his throne and exact his revenge.
As Cassiopea and her devilish companion inch closer to their mutually beneficial goal, we begin to notice a change in Hun-Kamé that, on the surface, appears to be an improvement. He’s softer around the edges and notably less harsh with our heroine. Yet this is actually evidence of the urgency of their task; he is becoming more human by the minute as his link with Casiopea intensifies. This provides a refreshing yet heartbreaking take on the slow-burn romance: the growing affection between these two characters produces as much anxiety as it does satisfaction since the more relatable the god becomes, the worse their mutual situation grows. Will Casiopea sever the link between them through her own act of sacrifice? Or will she be a Mexican Mephistopheles, serving at the hands of the devil until the bitter end?
Moreno-Garcia’s 2015 release Signal to Noise had readers hearing the music that sits at the heart of the main character as well as the story. But in this new novel, the author pivots on what sense she targets. She focuses not on our ears but our mind’s eye as she brings this world to life with color. The titular jade is abundant and the author’s palette is expansive. As Casiopea and Hun-Kamé travel around Mexico and into the Southwestern United States, the simple yet richly evocative prose vividly paints their path and the various other magical characters they meet on it. Even the underworld, a place we would assume would be the epitome of drab, comes alive with vibrant hues:
Xibalba, splendid and frightful, was a land of stifling gloom, lit by a cheerless night-sun and lacking a moon. The hour of twilight did not cease here. In Xibalba’s rivers there lurked jade caimans, alabaster fish swam in ink-black ponds, and glass insects buzzed about, creating a peculiar melody with the tinkering of their transparent wings.
The effect is deeply sensory and absorbing, taking the reader on a visual and emotional journey as the two leading characters are confronted with fearsome foes and impossible choices.
Readers of Naomi Novik will drink this book in with greedy gulps. Concise yet commanding and measuredly paced, Gods of Jade and Shadow combines whimsy, adventure, and an uplifting central message to create the kind of rip-roaring good time that myths are made of.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.