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

Genre : Magical Realism, Fairy Tale
Date Published :
July 23rd, 2019
Publisher : Penguin Random House

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. 

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

As per usual, I first heard about Gods of Jade and Shadow during one of my grad school classes. But the thing is, I didn’t know that it was the book being discussed. We were sent off into pairs to read a description of a book (given no author name, no title, no clue as to if it was an actual, published book) and were tasked with coming up with an elevator pitch for it – a 30 second speech that would convince someone to buy it. So my partner and I eventually came up with something along the lines of, “It’s like Percy Jackson, but set in 1920’s Mexico with Percy accidentally teaming up with Hades.” However, after reading Gods of Jade and Shadow (once discovering it was, in fact, a real book), all I can say is that Moreno-Garcia has created something that stands entirely apart from other mythological-themed books, and her story was a delight to read!

The story starts out rather simply, introducing us to Casiopea – a girl who dreams of having more and being more. Her mother married for love, rather than money, but once Casiopea’s father died, the two had no choice but to return to her grandfather, who has oh so graciously given them room and board under the agreement that they heed his every whim. This, along with her evil cousin Martín watching her every move, makes Casiopea’s life seem like every part of a Cinderella-esque fairytale. Where it diverges, however, is when Casiopea opens her grandfather’s locked chest and reaches inside, unknowingly releasing the Mayan god of death – Hun-Kamé.

“With a furious clacking, the bones jumped in the air and began assembling themselves into a human skeleton. Casiopea did not move. The pain in her hand and the wave of fear that struck her held the girl tight to her spot. In the blink of an eye all the bones clicked into place, like pieces of a puzzle. In another instant the bones became muscle, grew sinew, In a third blink of an eye they were covered in smooth skin.”

Chapter 2, page 21

That exact moment is when I knew that this book was going to be everything that I needed it to be. I mean, where else will you find a book where a skeleton puts itself back together, grows muscle and skin, and then introduces itself as the god of death (and a very ~attractive~ god of death, as Moreno-Garcia quickly clues us into)? Upon awakening Hun-Kamé, Casiopea finds herself with a piece of his bone lodged into her finger, and this is what forces the plot into action. Hun-Kamé tells her that it will drain her life force unless he pulls it out – which of course he won’t do until she helps him retrieve his jade necklace, his left eye, ear, and index finger (which, er, yeah, he doesn’t have, cause his evil brother Vucub-Kamé stole them before imprisoning him).

And thus Casiopea and the reader embark on a dazzling journey of magic and demons and gods. And it is not the typical, expected European mythological landscape that has pervaded much of fantasy literature. Moreno-Garcia fills the world with indigenous American legends, and the magic that exists is given a rich history that has been changed by colonization and modernity. The world-building, plot, and language of the book are all spectacular, and I promise that you won’t know what to expect whenever you turn the page.

And of course, what would the story be with the evolving relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé? This too, was fantastically done by Moreno-Garcia. The added detail that not removing the bone shard from Casiopea’s thumb also has an affect on Hun-Kamé – making him less of a god, and more of a human man – was a more than welcome addition to the story. I don’t want to give too much away in regards to this aspect, but I loved their relationship throughout the book, and I loved Casiopea’s final choice about it at the end!

I cannot recommend this book enough. And if you pick it up and like it as much as I did, Moreno-Garcia also has two other novels – Signal to the Noise (about magic and music), and Certain Dark Things (about vampires in Mexico City) – as well as a short story collection titled This Strange Way of Dying. I for one, will definitely be grabbing one – if not all – of these!

My rating: 8.5 Jade Necklaces out of 10

-Sara

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