Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey 978-0-525-62075-4, $26.00, 350pp, hc) August 2019.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s fourth novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, is a rip-roaring adventure set in 1920s Mexico, featuring duelling Mayan Death Gods, a secondary cast of ghosts, spirits, and warlocks and, caught in the middle of it all, an 18-year-old who peers longingly at the stars and constellations she’s named after. When we first meet Casiopea Tun she’s living with her mother in the ‘‘drab town’’ of Uukumil where she reluctantly tends to her wealthy grandfather, ‘‘a bitter man, with more poison in his shrivelled body than was in the stinger of a white scorpion.’’ She’s also forced to deal with Martín, her loathsome cousin and heir to their grandfather’s fortune. He persecutes Casiopea partly because she once had the temerity to hit him with a stick – he insulted her deceased father – and partly because Martín recognises that Casiopea is so much smarter than him, a truth acknowledged by their grandfather (‘‘‘Why couldn’t you be a boy?’ Grandfather had told Casiopea one time.’’).
Following a near-violent confrontation between the two cousins, Casiopea is ordered to stay at home while the family enjoys their monthly trip to the nearby cenotes (naturally occurring sinkholes common in the Yucatán). Alone in her grandfather’s bedroom, reflecting on her wretched existence, Casiopea spies a key on the floor. It’s the same key her grandfather wears permanently on a gold chain around his neck, a key that fits a lock to a ‘‘beautiful black chest, which he never opened.’’ Believing it might contain gold – ‘‘the old man owed her something for her suffering’’ – Casiopea unlocks the chest only to find a heap of bones. While searching through the chest she cuts her thumb on a shard of bone, drawing blood. This causes the remains to suddenly snap together, Ray Harryhausen-style, followed quickly by muscle and flesh, forming a ‘‘tall naked man… his hair… the blue-black of a sleek bird, reaching his shoulder, his skin bronzed, the nose prominent, the face proud.’’ This is Hun-Kamé, Lord of the Shadows and Supreme ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. Betrayed by his twin brother Vucub-Kamé (ably assisted by Casiopea’s grandfather) Hun-Kamé has spent the last few decades trapped in the chest, his brother usurping him as Lord of Xibalba. Hun-Kamé won’t stand for it, but before he can regain his throne, he must find his missing body parts – a left eye, ear, and index finger – and a jade necklace scattered across Mexico by his treacherous brother. Casiopea has no choice but to go with him, her blood intermingled with Hun-Kamé’s magic, keeping them both alive.
What I found impressive about Gods of Jade and Shadow, especially once Casiopea and Hun-Kamé head off on their journey, is the way Garcia takes advantage of the quest-narrative to explore her setting. As we travel across Mexico, the novel’s omniscient narrator not only describes the sights and sounds of each state but places the specific region in its historical context both in terms of the present day (in this case the 1920s) and a past which frequently involves some form of colonial interference. Garcia describes how the Mexican Revolution had little impact on the ‘‘upper crust citizens’’ of Mérida, informs us of Veracruz’s African legacy, where slaves were ‘‘hauled off [on] European ships and forced to toil on sugar plantations,’’ and revels in the paradox of Mexico City with its ‘‘tenements, criminals… lowbrow entertainment,’’ and ‘‘wide avenues… shiny cars [and] its department stores filled with fine goods.’’ It’s engrossing stuff, more than just a cursory travelogue, and beautifully rendered in the most gorgeous, evocative prose.
A common drawback of the quest-narrative is that its narrow focus on a clear goal means it follows a predictable path. To an extent that’s the case with Gods of Jade and Shadow, particularly when it becomes evident early in the piece that all roads lead to Baja California and a reckoning with Vucub-Kamé. Garcia gets around this issue by making the novel so much fun to read, ingeniously drawing on Mayan mythology to provide a series of hair-raising set-pieces. She also cleverly uses the narrative limitations of the quest to ramp up the novel’s central tension. It’s no surprise when Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s initially fractious partnership becomes one of mutual respect, deepening into something more romantic. We’re also aware that the relationship is doomed to fail: once Hun-Kamé overthrows his brother everything will return to the status quo. And yet Garcia’s terrific character work – Hun-Kamé’s gradual, albeit involuntary, shift toward humanity; Casiopea’s opportunity to see the world for all its beauty and ugliness – means we hope that the inevitable can be forestalled, that these two unique, remarkable individuals will continue their journey together.
Garcia reminds us that stories don’t need twists or improbable surprises to engage and affect a reader. The fundamentals of storytelling have been, and will always be, a distinctive setting and well-drawn, memorable characters. Gods of Jade and Shadow has both these elements in droves.
Like bratty kids, ancient gods develop behavioral issues when placed in time out. At least this is what we can conclude from a long tradition of fantasy and horror tales involving exiled Old Ones, ranging from a good chunk of Lovecraft’s career to recent films like Cabin in the Woods. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Saad Z. Hossein remind us, even venerable tropes like this can take on a new vitality when viewed in the context of different cultures. Moreno-Garcia’s novel, set in Mexico during the 1920s, draws on the Mayan mythology of the Popol Vuh and features a resurrected god of the underworld, while Hossain’s features a cranky djinn, the self-proclaimed ‘‘Lord of Tuesday,’’ awakened after millennia in the Himalayas and thrust into a radically futuristic Kathmandu. Both quickly find themselves working with skeptical human partners who serve as de facto guides to the strange new worlds, but apart from these similarities, the novels quickly head off in different directions, with Moreno-Garcia moving toward historical fiction and even romance, while Hossain offers a mix of dark screwball comedy and high-concept SF.
Gods of Jade and Shadow begins with a young woman named Casiopea, who is treated like Cinderella, as the cleaning lady in her wealthy grandfather’s house in the Yucatan, and who acts like Pandora when she opens a forbidden box in her grandfather’s study, inadvertently releasing Hun-Kamé, a Mayan god of death and Lord of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. A shard of bone imbedded in Casiopea’s thumb when she opened the box creates a kind of symbiotic link between her and Hun-Kamé, who immediately enlists her in a quest to regain his rightful heritage from his usurping brother Vucub-Kamé – who apparently had trapped him in the box with the aid of Casiopea’s own grandfather. The quest, which involves Hun-Kamé regaining an eye, an ear, a finger, and a jade necklace – sibling rivalry among the gods is not a pretty thing, I guess – leads them on a colorful journey through 1920s Mexico, first by train to Mérida, then to Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and Tijuana. Meanwhile, Casiopea’s odious cousin Martín, a spoiled brat who had been favored by their grandfather, has allied himself with Vucub-Kamé, and is out to thwart them.
By now, the notion of an episodic cross-country trip in the company of a god, encountering various other godlets, demons, smoke monsters, and other supernatural figures along the way, inevitably calls to mind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Moreno-Garcia’s characters cover nearly as much territory traversing Mexico and part of the US. But Gods of Jade and Shadow is in no sense Mexican Gods; it’s very much its own tale, and the balance between Mayan mythology and historical fantasy is handled with impressive assurance and disarming good humor. The sheltered but fiercely independent Casiopea learns as much about her own changing culture as she does about the underworld, confronting aspects of Mexico’s racist past at a carnival in Veracruz, the influence of American jazz-age culture in Mexico City, and the booming tourist industry in Tijuana – fueled in part by Prohibition in the US. The various rail journeys, cities, and hotels are vividly differentiated in a way that suggests an impressive amount of research into the Mexico of the 1920s. On the other hand, the most chilling sequence involves a treacherous underworld journey which Casiopea must undertake by herself, traveling the Black Road to Xibalba.
The real strength of the novel depends on Moreno-Garcia’s carefully nuanced handling of her characters. It would be easy to write Casiopea as a wide-eyed innocent abroad, and indeed she initially fears that merely seeing Hun-Kamé unclothed will consign her to hell. Her awareness of the injustices of her life has given her a core of anger and resourcefulness that quickly become apparent when she simply refuses to be intimidated by Hun-Kamé. Some of their banter is delightful, even as it occasionally edges into rom-com territory, but Casiopea makes it clear that she’s not about to be freed from her servile home life simply to become a fangirl of the gods. Hun-Kamé, for his part, can be both blustery and urbane as a guide, but is also concerned about losing his powers as he moves further from Mayan territory, and as his growing feelings for Casiopea threaten to undermine his responsibilities as a heartless death-god. Even the chapters which follow the point of view of the awful cousin Martín offer some insights into the origins of his brattiness, although not nearly enough to redeem him, and some of the secondary characters, notably a helpful demon named Loray and the dangerously glamorous Lady Ixtabay, are memorably vivid. Still, it’s Casiopea’s growing awareness of the world and her own priorities – gods or no gods – that make her one of the more appealing and defiant heroines in recent fantasy.
-Gary K. Wolfe
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the August 2019 issue of Locus.
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