Times are a-changing. Welcome to Jazz Age Mexico, where hemlines and haircuts are getting scandalously short and the lord of the underworld is about to be released from imprisonment…
I regularly fly the flag for Silvia Moreno-Garcia here – there will always be room for one more of her books on my shelves. She refuses to be pigeon-holed, hopping from one subgenre to another with aplomb. Her prose is elegant, her characters nuanced and unashamedly themselves (and yes, unafraid to be unlikeable at times). But precisely because each of her books is so different to the last, it’s never a sure fire thing that her latest will be a new favourite.
Against all the odds, Gods of Jade and Shadow is the first of her books that I found hard work. On paper, this is entirely my jam – literally, I mean just look at that beautifully stylistic cover art – but it took me two months to struggle my way from start to finish. I’m strongly tempted to chalk it up to 2020 (because fucking hell, 2020).
Casiopeia Tun is a small-town Cinderella with no princes in sight, who finds a dead god in a box when she’s kept home from the
ball monthly trip to the hot spring. Casiopeia is another fine Silvia Moreno-Garcia heroine: clever, proud and effortlessly stubborn, whose spiky temper and (well-earned) resentment are kept constantly simmering by her insufferable family. The family are quickly-sketched thumbnails of selfish privilege, but it’s easy to believe she’d leave town with the god of death at the drop of a hat.
Hun-Kamé, erstwhile Lord of Xibalba – until his twin brother betrayed him, dismembered him and strewed his body parts around Mexico – is a god on a mission. He’s also a god with a problem: without a link to Casiopeia, he can only manifest for an hour a night; with it, he gets more human by the day – and more vulnerable to his brother Vucub-Kamé, who would dearly like rid of him once and for all. If their quest takes too long, Hun-Kamé will become mortal and both he and Casiopeia will die. But if they win…
Luckily for him, Casiopeia is willing to take the gamble on victory, not so much seduced by his promise of rewards as desperate for release from her own metaphorical box.
Cue a dark, distinctly Mexican fairytale as the two embark on their odd couple road trip. Their uneven relationship is oddly endearing. Casiopeia is Hun-Kamé’s champion, defiant in the face of horrors – and surprised when he stands up for her in return. Hun-Kamé is imperious but unexpectedly solicitous, the first person in Casiopeia’s life to see and appreciate her. Of course, he’s also a deposed god of death: dismissive, controlling and utterly self-absorbed – at least initially. As her mortality begins to creep up on him, he begins to change…
I should have enjoyed this duo and their dynamic far more than I did. I love trickster death gods; I love rebellious young women – and I loved both these characters as depicted here, as well as their charged interactions. While the injection of romantic elements made me uncomfortable (power imbalance, much?), I’m glad I gave Silvia Moreno-Garcia the benefit of the doubt; the ending hit exactly the right note.
But I struggled with the storytelling. There are passages of great beauty, but there are occasional clankers that left me wincing (the action sequence in Uay Chivo’s house). Throughout, there were times where I found the third person narrative a little too blunt or a little repetitive, even over-told. I eventually decided it would work really well as spoken word – it makes sense to me as an oral style, and makes me wish I’d read this as an audio book. Sometimes I can enjoy this style as written word too; on this occasion, I’m just going to acknowledge it as a choice (and an exploration of a tradition, from what I understand) that didn’t work for me on the day.
I also struggled with the antagonists. As the ruling lord of Xibalba, Vucub-Kamé lacks self-awareness and restraint, all swaggering threats with a grand vision to bring human sacrifice back to Mexico. I prefer a little more nuance in my villains; here, you have to commit to over the top fairytale EEEVVVIIILLL. Cousin Martin ended up surprising me, but his journey from insecure bully to a person with an ounce of empathy was a slog through inner monologues that left me wishing someone would set him on fire.
But these issues of narrative style and villainy are highly subjective. They’re not flaws, they just weren’t right for me. So I recommend Gods of Jade and Shadow to others without hesitation – I’ll consider rereading it when I’m in a better headspace as I suspect I may react to it quite differently.
This is a fantasy that stands out for being a recognisable narrative transformed by its a fascinating setting. I was intrigued by the mythology, beguiled by Moreno-Garcia’s vision of a Mexico caught between tradition and almost indiscriminate reinvention with no certainty of whether the change will be for the better or the worse (regardless of whether Vucub-Kamé gets his way). That theme of metamorphosis is echoed in the connection between our protagonists and the ways they change one another; the fairytale promise that even eternal Death can be gentled by love.
It may be constructed from the timbers of traditional tales, but Gods of Jade and Shadow sets its own rules and delivers on its own terms. Chalk it up as one I objectively admire, even if I didn’t always enjoy it.