Title: Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019)
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Imprint: Jo Fletcher Books
Read: 5th August – 1st September 2019
Genre: historical fiction; fantasy; mythology
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy scrubbing floors in her wealthy grandfather’s house to do more than dream of a life far from her small town in southern Mexico. Until the day she accidentally frees an ancient Mayan god of death, who offers her a deal: in return for Casiopea’s help in recovering his throne, he will grant her whatever she desires. From the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City and deep into the darkness of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, Casiopea’s adventure will take her on a perilous cross-country odyssey beyond anything she’s ever known. Success will make her every dream come true, but failure will see her lost, for ever…” (Synopsis from publisher)
When a novel is blurbed by S.A. Chakraborty as ‘historical fantasy at its best’, it’s an easy sell to me, but the synopsis was what really sold it – I don’t think I had previously came across a book set during the Jazz Age, let alone in Mexico, and certainly not one which had magical and mythical elements to it. Perhaps that says more about my own blinkered reading lists. But the promise of this being inspired by Mexican folklore is what made me keen to pick it up and I was delighted when I was granted an eARC of this from the publisher. I’m very happy to say that this book delivered everything it promised and did one thing I also didn’t expect – not only was it inspired by Mexican folklore, I felt like it read like one too, its tone and narrative structure seemed to mirror the sort of Latin American magical realism seen in the 20th century in the works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. This felt like it belonged alongside such tales.
“Unnaturally beautiful the stranger was – this was beauty sketched from smoke and dreams, translated into fallible flesh- but his dark gaze was made of flint.“
The principal players in this tale are Casiopea Tun, treated as more of a servant than a granddaughter, though unafraid to stand up to her horrible cousin, even when she knows she should hold her tongue. From the start of the tale, Casiopea has little rebellions against the tyrannical rule of her grandfather and her cousin Martín and tries her best to not be put down by her family even though she is placed in such a subservient position in her day to day life. Into this situation storms a dangerous and handsome Mayan death god… obviously. Casiopea finds herself entangled in Lord of Xibalba, Hun-Kamé, and his mission of revenge on his brother, Vucub-Kamé, who imprisoned him until Casiopea inadvertently set him free by opening a mysterious chest of her grandfather’s – doing so means that she is bound to him and has to help him complete his mission to get his left eye, ear, index finger, and jade necklace back from his treacherous brother. The catch is that for every minute he spends in human form and relying on Casiopea’s help, the more human he will become, and the more life he will drain from her. The two of them find themselves in an impossible position but, for Casiopea, it means a strange sort of freedom as this oddly respectful but stern god whisks her away from her rural family home in a small and conservative village and into the bright lights of the exciting world beyond .
“A god of death in the room. Impossible and yet, undeniably, true. She did not pause to question her sanity, to think she might be hallucinating. She accepted him as real and solid. She could see him, and she knew she was not mad or prone to flights of fancy, so she trusted her eyes.”
Unfortunately, I need to address the huge elephant in the room – this book took me so long to read, especially considering its relatively short length. Not to put too finer point on it but this book is very slow-paced, I found it engaging enough when I was reading it, but I never felt immediately compelled to pick it back up once I had set it aside for a break. I think a lot of that has to do with the narrative voice being quite simple and didactic; to me, because it reads extremely like a translated retelling of a Latin American folktale, but that means there isn’t that same sense of pace or urgency that you might otherwise find in a fantastical novel otherwise. It is certainly beautifully told and plotted, but it’s also slowly drawn out and explored; it’s not rushed through or action-packed necessarily, and that makes for a slower read, in my experience at least.
“Hadn’t the Lords of Xibalba delighted in tricking and disposing of mortals? But there was the question of the bone shard and the nagging voice in the back of her head that whispered ‘adventure’. “
In conclusion, without wishing to conflate the two, Gods of Jade and Shadow reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods in tone as well as in narrative structure, as we followed the pattern of a protagonist being lead into a fantastical, mythological world by a god, meeting various other deific beings in the pantheon, and completing fantastical journeys and tasks in order to help the god. However, in Gods of Jade and Shadow‘s case, Casiopea is a wonderfully strong heroine who isn’t afraid to question the god’s orders, his motivations, and his judgement, making her certainly a match for the Mayan god of death. With this dramatic journey to recover what the god lost also comes a chance for Casiopea to escape from her previous life and taste the freedom that comes with adventure, even if that comes at a cost. With mythology and folklore easily woven into this didactic tale, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel is one that is sure to compel any fans of books relating to mythology, especially those away from the typical Greek, Roman, or Norse pantheons.
“She did not believe in fairy tales, but she had convinced herself she’d have a happy ending.”
Thank you to Quercus Books for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Disclaimer: The quotes above are taken from the eARC and may differ slightly from the final version in the printed book.