Book review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a road trip through 1920s Mexico and through Mayan myth; it's a quest-adventure, a fairy tale, and a lovely coming-of-age story. It begins in a dusty Mexican small town, where eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun waits on her tyrannical grandfather and scrubs floors for her sneering, wealthy relatives a la Cinderella. Casiopea dreams of escape, of the glamor of the Jazz Age which is passing her by. She wants to wear short, pretty dresses like the women that she's seen in newspapers; she wants to dance the Charleston, to swim in the sea, to drive an automobile. And then escape comes to her in a way that she never expected, when she opens the chest her grandfather keeps and releases Hun-Kamé, the Mayan god of death himself. . .

 What follows is a fresh and original road trip with witches, demons, sorcerers and gods—something that reminded me at times of Neal Gaiman's American Gods, but with a focus on actual indigenous myths and gods. Casiopea is an immediately appealing heroine: pragmatic and brave, yearning and resilient, and (as the text early states): She had a knack for quiet insurrection. Her evolving relationship with the Mayan death god is one of the chief delights of this book. Casiopea is justifiably angry at being roped into his quest and the political intrigues of gods, into being asked again and again to sacrifice for him. She has no choice, for her life and fate have become entwined with his; in the mortal world, Hun-Kamé draws upon her life to sustain himself, and she can only be free once she has helped him to regain his power and throne. But the longer he lingers in the mortal world, the more mortal he himself becomes. Although any reader can see where this relationship is headed, Moreno-Garcia depicts their love story with delicacy and charm; it's a delight to see the death god become more human, to see two young people warily circle one another and then draw close. To see both girl and god experience first love.

Fused with Casiopea's very human coming-of-age story is the grandness of myth. Moreno-Garcia understands the symbols and language of myth, and her characters very consciously do so as well. Symmetry in everything is most pleasing, Hun-Kamé usurper brother Vacub-Kamé declares at one point, when he decides to pit Casiopea's bullying cousin Martín against her, to use Martín as his champion just as Casiopea's is Hun-Kamé champion. "Cousin against cousin, brother against brother. I hope you can appreciate the symbolism," Vacub-Kamé says. This is a story that takes myth seriously, in all its strangeness and violence. In the Mayan underworld, there are rivers of blood and a house of flying razors; there's a great caiman, strange monsters, and sacrifice. Sacrifice after all, was at the heart of the most famous of ancient Mayan rituals, and sacrifice is a theme throughout this novel. The imagery of the underworld here—the darkness and horror and strange beauty—is some of the most compelling in the book.

Yet for all the fearsomeness of the gods of death and their realm (and there really are some wonderfully creepy scenes), Gods of Jade and Shadow is suffused with gentleness. There's a compassion and generosity to this book which I love. There is redemption (or the start of redemption) for characters, even as the hurts they've caused are acknowledged. And though the ending is bittersweet, there is resilience and a hopeful promise in it as well. In the end, it's a story of a young woman stepping out into the world, learning and growing and coming into her own. And it's a story that does this by beautifully fusing the intimate and personal with the grandeur and resonating themes of fairy tale and myth.

As Hun-Kamé tells Casipea at one point:

"Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words, you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth.' " Yes, the things you name have power."


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