Erica’s Pick of the Week: Gods of Jade and Shadow

This was a summer of mostly meh books – I read a lot, but can’t remember most of the titles, or the plots, or the characters. They weren’t bad, exactly. Just…meh. Indistinguishable. More of the same, when what I wanted was something that stood out, something that gave me a fresh perspective or an unusual story. I found it, finally, in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow

It’s the story of Casiopea Tun, a mixed-race girl in 1920s Mexico who has been forced by Cinderella-like servitude by her extended family. Desperate to escape their tiny village and her crass, cruel relatives, she gets her wish when she accidentally releases Hun-Kamé , God of Death and Lord of Xibalba from a wooden chest in her grandfather’s room. Magically bound together, Casiopea and Hun-Kamé set off to avenge his ouster from the underworld at the hands of his brother, and retake the throne. (Family, right?)

 Their quest takes them from Casiopea’s tiny village to Baja by way of Jazz-Age Mexico City (and some magical shortcuts). They meet demons, con artists, sorcerers and sirens, find themselves pursued by odious cousins and sinister owls, and begin – impossibly – to fall in love. 

Gods of Jade and Shadow is one of those novels that seamlessly blends genres: it hovers magical realism and fantasy, as well as historical fiction. The evocative and richly detailed  magical world Moreno-Garcia creates is rooted in Mayan mythology and woven seamlessly into the story, as are the historical details – it was fascinating to read about Mexico in the 1920s, a perspective too often lacking. And in many ways, the book feels like a dark fairy tale, complete with an omniscient narrator who is both clear-eyed and fond of our heroine, Casiopea Tun.

Casiopea is a great heroine: brave, despite her fears, true to herself, thirsty for a change, and willing to do what needs to be done. She is both naïve and insightful, with a dry sense of humor and insatiable curiosity. Hun-Kamé is the perfect foil to such a strong, appealing character – he’s as stern and implacable as you’d expect the God of Death to be, and watching him slowly become more human as he spends more time with Casiopea is both delightful and alarming. After all, how is a deposed Lord of the Underworld expected to defeat his traitorous brother if he loses his considerable powers? 

As the story progressed and the tension increased – enemies plotting against Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, their powers lessening alongside their odds of success – I started to worry that the ending would be too pat – that the author would sacrifice her characters’ true nature in order to wrap things up with a pretty bow. In lesser hands, that might have happened. But Moreno-Garcia handled it beautifully, staying true to both the characters and the rules of the world she created. 

If you’re looking for something a little different than your usual read, or just a genre-defying, gorgeously written story, Gods of Jade and Shadow is one to check out.

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