Casiopeia Tun is the poor relation of the Leyva family, put to work as a servant to her grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s established early, though, that she’s not one to take easily to subservience. Sure, she’ll probably do what she’s told — eventually — but it won’t be with a smile. She cherishes a few modest dreams of the things she’d see and do if she could only escape the family home and the dusty little town of Uukumil. When the family leaves her out of an outing as punishment, she sees her chance and opens the forbidden chest in her grandfather’s room. She’s hoping for a few coins to fund her escape to Mérida. Instead, she awakens Hun-Kamé, a Mayan death god.
It turns out that he was imprisoned there by his jealous brother, Vucub-Kamé, in order to usurp the throne of the underworld, Xibalba. Now Hun-Kamé must travel to several cities in Mexico and the southwestern United States to gather some missing items and regain his full power. Because of the way Casiopeia revived him, the two are magically bound, and she must go with him. Meanwhile, Vucub-Kamé is laying a trap for him, one that he hopes will cement his own rule over Xibalba and give him ascendancy over humans again. To this end, he enlists Casiopeia’s spoiled cousin, Martín.
Casiopeia’s journey with Hun-Kamé changes both of them. The death god is challenged by Casiopeia’s different ways of thinking about things. He becomes more human as a result of their magical connection, experiencing human emotions for the first time. This has the potential, though, to weaken him for the confrontation with his brother and distract him from what is at stake. Casiopeia is drawn to the handsome god, but sometimes wonders whether serving a deity is any better than serving one’s family, especially when she realizes that — although she has successfully escaped Uukumil — she still might die on this quest before getting to do the things she wanted to escape Uukumil for.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia uses beautifully descriptive prose to take us on a tour of 1920s Mexico. She tells us a little of the history of each place, so I learned something too! If I had any complaint, it would be that I wish we could have lingered more in each city to see more of its sights and nightlife. But then, so does Casiopeia, and the reader’s longing helps make the heroine’s longing feel real. No story about death gods would be complete without a trip to the underworld, and we get that too, with all its challenges and temptations. While Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) reads quickly, is not particularly long, and doesn’t take much in-universe time to unfold, by the end we feel like we’ve had a grand adventure.
The ending is not the happiest possible outcome, nor the saddest; it is, however, the most fitting for the characters. The more I think about it, the more I like it.
Overall, I loved this historical romantic fantasy. I devoured Gods of Jade and Shadow in one day and was moved to tears at several points. I yelled at characters when they needed yelling at. I inhabited this world until I turned the last page. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s backlist, here I come.
Like Kelly, I loved Gods of Jade and Shadow. I thought Casiopea was a strong-willed, compelling main character. While she is quietly (and sometimes openly) rebellious, she is still a conventional girl of her time in many ways, and I liked watching her struggle with the faith she was raised in as her road trip with Hun-Kame shows her very different things about gods, demons and humans. Hun-Kame’s gradual transformation, as he seeks to find the parts of himself that his treacherous brother god has hidden, was believable, and as always with Moreno-Garcia, the prose was lovely.
Moreno-Garcia employs a story-teller’s narrative voice, addressing the reader directly. The writing equivalent of “breaking the fourth wall” can be risky, especially if the writer does not do it right from the start, but Moreno-Garcia brings delicacy to this technique. The voice is that of someone older and wiser, inviting us all into the circle commenting without jarring us out of the story’s moment.
She smiled at Hun-Kame. He smiled at her too. What was this? A simple act of mimicry? No. The smile, like his laughter, like the errant dream, came from his heart. Did he realize it? No. Does anyone who has been young and foolish realize the extent and depth of their emotions? Of course not.
It reminds us that this is a story, exactly like the stories Casiopea has read and heard whispered her whole life… and stories are also the seeds that Casiopea draws on when she makes her final decision at the end of the book.
Also like Kelly, I wanted more of those exquisite descriptions. Moreno-Garcia excels at description, and within that category, she truly excels at interiors. Places like the Tierra Blanca casino and Xtabay’s decadent, stylish Art Deco salon come to life. The masterpiece, however (while it isn’t an interior) is the eerie, frightening and beautiful Mayan underworld, Xibalba.
I hope Gods of Jade and Shadow gets Moreno-Garcia the attention she deserves. Her stories always have an original cast, her characters are good and her prose is gorgeous. The spotlight should be swinging her way.