Maybe she was not a hero with a shield and a divine provenance, but it’s the symbolism that matters.
Casiopea Tun and her mother work as servants in her grandfather’s house in a small town in the Yucatan Peninsula after Casiopea’s father died. 18-year-old Casiopea dreams of escape and is captivated by the wonders of the world outside of her small town. But in 1927 her avenues to freedom are limited and so Casiopea and her mother serve her wealthier family members with the hope that when the dying patriarch finally succumbs a long-promised inheritance will be theirs. One day, while the rest of the family is at church, CAsiopea opens a mysterious chest in her grandfather’s bedroom and releases the imprisoned Lord of Xibalba Hun-Kamé. Several years before Hun-Kam had been betrayed by his brother Vucub-Kamé acting with Casiopea’s grandfather to imprison the rightful ruler of Xibalba and install Vucub-Kamé to the throne instead. Casiopea’s family wealth came from that villainous act and she is enlisted to help Hun-Kamé recover four items stolen from him so that he can regain his powers. However, in order to do so, he uses Casiopea’s life force, via a tiny shard of his bone she inadvertently sticks herself with when she first opened the chest. The two set off on a road trip adventure but the clock is ticking. The more of Casiopea’s life force Hun-Kamé takes, the more human he becomes and the closer she gets to death.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia mixes Mayan mythology with a road trip adventure, similar to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but more insular. Gaiman’s book was broad and sprawling in scope. Gods of Jade and Shadow on the other hand, is intimate and more of a coming of age story. The quest for Hun-Kamé ‘s missing body parts takes the pair from the small town of Ukemil to Mexico City, Tijuana, and finally the United States. A romance of sorts develops between the god and the mortal, but Moreno-Garcia is careful to always keep the nature of the gods in mind. This is not a light fantasy, the stakes are high as the pair soon discover and a chase is on to stop them with a mix of mortals and supernatural beings standing in their way.
Vucub-Kamé enlists the help of Casiopea’s arrogant cousin, Martin, to track her down and convince her to betray Hun-Kamé in exchange for the favor of Vucub-Kamé. Martin and Casiopea have a history and their relationship is interesting and well written. While Martin is a bit of a bastard, he is not as one-dimensional as he first appears and by the end, I did not dislike him as much as I thought I would when he was first introduced. Like her 2019 Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia takes well-worn premises and breathes new life into them. She also has a real knack for writing horror and deploys it strategically for maximum effect. The nature of gods, and especially Mayan gods, and their world is detailed and vibrant. The characters Casiopea meets give the story an Alice in Wonderland vibe that gets stronger as the story goes on. This extends to Hun-Kamé as well. His growing humanity is a source of fear and wonders for the god and he is conflicted by his new emotions and growing feelings for Casiopea.
Gods of Jade and Shadow is an enjoyable ride with a likable and realistic heroine who rises to the occasion even when she is terrified of taking the next step. The inevitability of the ending serves to shadow the story just as the inevitability of death can cast a shadow on even the happiest of moments in our lives. The book is about not being afraid to dream and doing what it takes to fulfill those dreams even with death staring you down. It’s about the act of belief and power of the patterns of mythology. The book is also about hungry ghosts, demons, death gods, giant caimans, warlocks, and talking snakes to name but a few of the fantastical elements. If one of more of thase last three sentences intrigued you, go read Gods of Jade and Shadow.