Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow starts as a Mexican Cinderella story, except that the fairy godmother is a Mayan god of death.
Not sold yet? What if I told you the god of death is also Prince Charming?
Moreno-Garcia makes the connection explicit in the first few pages, when we’re introduced to our heroine, Casiopea Tun, a girl who’s lost her father and must sustain herself by serving her richer relations. Her tasks include scrubbing the family estate’s floors, fetching her grandfather’s newspapers, and shining her cousin Martín’s shoes. But she’s not headed for a life-changing ball. Opening her grandfather’s secret box—decorated with “an image of a decapitated man in the traditional Mayan style, his hands holding a double-headed serpent that signaled royalty”—frees Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the ancient underworld. He was imprisoned by his twin brother and needs Casiopea’s help regaining his throne.
This quest involves regaining lost items (à la Cinderella’s glass slipper): “My left eye, ear, and index finger, and the jade necklace,” Hun-Kamé informs Casiopea. “These I must have in order to be myself again.” His brother entrusted these relics to various demons, ghosts, and sorcerers, all of whom must be confronted and overcome.
There’s also a ticking clock. Except the consequences of it striking (metaphorical) midnight are far worse than a mere return to shabby clothes. To reconstitute himself, Hun-Kamé embedded a shard of his bone in Casiopea’s hand. The shard funnels vitality from her to him, slowly draining her essence. If she helps Hun-Kamé achieve his goal in time, he’ll pull out the shard. If she doesn’t, she dies.
It’s an awesome premise.
I also enjoyed the setting. The story takes place in Jazz Age Mexico, shortly after the Mexican Revolution and at a time when pop culture was “all about the United States” and “reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford cars!” Yet there’s far more old than new here. Mayan mythology threads through the Gods of Jade and Shadow. And when Casiopea reaches a city she hasn’t been to before—such as Mérida or Veracruz—Moreno-Garcia gives us a primer about the area, tutorials that situate the region in a historical context while rarely feeling unnecessary or overlong.
I didn’t always love the pace, though. This was a slow-and-steady read for me. The “travel to a fresh place, beat the bad guys, get the thing” format in the early going became a little repetitive. I also wondered if the eventual contest between Hun-Kamé and his brother was too arbitrary, even allowing for the vagaries of gods. The rules seemed stretched to require Casiopea’s participation, without providing a substantive reason why the twins couldn’t settle their own dispute.
But the book has an irresistible style, and Moreno-Garcia pulls off a romance between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé that’s somehow sweet despite their frequent encounters with (and command of) absolute darkness. If you like fresh takes on classic fairy tales, Gods of Jade and Shadow is definitely worth a look.
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