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

Book Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Genre : YA, Speculative Fiction
Date Published :
September 10, 2019
Publisher : Penguin Random House

There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings and a drop of Jam’s blood, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question–How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi was hands down my favorite read of 2019! In December, the library where I work held a staff event where we all shared our favorite 2019 books for kids and teens, and my coworker and I pitched Pet as the best book of the year (School Library Journal, NPR, and New York Public Library seem to agree)! If you have yet to read it, I highly suggest you spend the rest of your Sunday afternoon doing so – at only 208 pages, Pet is a quick read, though it packs quite a punch in a short amount of time.

Where to start? I absolutely LOVED Jam – she is so sweet and determined and real. Jam is black, trans, and selectively verbal, and while these parts of her identity are important, she did not face any hardships in the story as a result of her identities. Emezi populates the town of Lucille with an all-black cast of characters who unabashedly support Jam in her transness and learn sign language just for her. I loved that Emezi allows Jam to simply exist as she is and go on a life-changing adventure. That doesn’t happen very often in fiction these days, and it was super refreshing.

I also LOVED Pet as a character. Its emergence from the painting was so weird and beautiful, and really solidified the whole visual tone of the story for me. Lush, bright, and strange. I would pay so much money just to see this moment turned into an animated feature (and, let’s be honest, the entire story deserves to be made into a movie, animated or otherwise).

I think Pet is an essential read for our current political climate. Though Lucille is a “Utopian” society that is much better off than we currently are in terms of equality, the core message of the story is that humans must constantly be vigilant our fight against evil. Even when we think we’ve made it to “Utopia,” there will always be monsters lurking where we least expect them. Emezi also challenges us think about the different weapons we employ in our fight against evil. Violence is sometimes necessary, but so is restraint and forgiveness.

When I have kids, you better believe this book will be on their shelves. In the meantime, I am on a mission to make all of my friends read this quirky, delightful, powerful little book. I can’t wait to see what Emezi has in store for us next with The Death of Vivek Oji (August 4, 2020 from Riverhead Books. Preorder here.)!

-Emory