Book: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Edeweiss+
Book Description: 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.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
Review: It’s no secret that I love fairy tale fantasy fiction, and while the genre is definitely getting a lot of attention recently, many of its stories are fairly familiar. At best, they may be pulling from lesser known tales, but many are still set in a European setting of some sort. The description of this story promised a fairy tale of a very different sort. And, wow, did it deliver.
Casiopea has grown up wishing to be anywhere but where she is, the lesser family member in a small village removed from a world that is moving ever forward, full of music, dancing, and fast moving cars. She has dreams of driving one of those cars one day, swimming in the ocean, and so much more. Adventure finally does arrive on her door, but in no manner that she could have expected. Now, bound to the fate of a god who is in the middle of a battle with his brother for the throne of their underworld kingdom, Casiopea begins to realize that the world is even bigger and more strange than she had ever imagined.
There are so many things I loved about this book that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess, with the writing itself, probably. What I’ve always enjoyed about fairy tale fantasy is the freedom it gives authors to simply write beautiful stories. While I appreciate a good magic system as much as the next person, there’s something particularly beautiful about wondrous and strange scenes that require no explanation for the whys and hows. The author perfectly capitalizes on this freedom while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of flower-y or saccharine writing that can often come hand in hand. Particularly, the scenes in the underworld were fascinating. Beautiful, yet treacherous. Dark, mysterious, and filled with creatures and beings that were out of this world but written in such a way that they seemed to simply appear in the mind’s eye, fully formed.
I’m not familiar with any of the Mayan folktales that inspired portions of this story (though there is an interesting afterward from the author that goes into a few details), so it’s hard to know which of these fantastical elements are traditional to these stories and which were objects of the author’s own imagination. I guess it doesn’t matter as the most important test has been passed simply by the fact that I couldn’t distinguish. Moreno-Garcia’s story feels as if it could be as well-known as some of the European fairy tales we all know, complete in every way.
I’ve only read one other book by this author, “The Beautiful Ones,” which I also very much enjoyed. The books are completely different, but there is one connecting factor that also seems to be a unique aspect of this author specifically as I haven’t seen used often (or well) by other authors. That is in both of these books we are given chapters from the villains’ point of view. What’s so great about these chapters is that while they do give insight into the mindset of these characters, they don’t ask readers to like them, in the traditional sense, or forgive them for the wrongs they have done or, often, are in the midst of still doing. It’s a tough feat to pull off, humanizing them just enough to be understood but not so much that one feels guilty about siding completely with the hero/heroine, even though they are often operating on less knowledge than the reader, not being privy to the villains’ thoughts and feelings. In this book, more so that “The Beautiful Ones,” the villains are not even villainous in the traditional sense. They each have major flaws, but by the end of the book, I was satisfied that their characters had a satisfactory arc of their own.
As for the heroine of our story, Casiopea is excellent. She is intrepid, bold, and compassionate, meeting the challenges set before her, bizarre as they often are, with acceptance and courage for the role she must play. The relationship that builds between her and her god-companion is perfectly real, full of individual flaws and pain, but gaining in mutual respect and regard as they make their way across the country.
I also really loved the setting for this book. I haven’t read many books that take place in Mexico (let alone fantasy novels that do). And I also haven’t read many books that take place during the Jazz Age. In many ways, the cities they visit, vibrant with the signs of the local culture and this point in history, are just as magical feeling as the actual fantasy locations that are introduced. The story feels just as colorful and vibrant as the buildings and people its describing.
This was a wonderful book. If you enjoy fairy tales, this is definitely a must. But I also feel that fans of historical fiction will appreciate this story simply based on the strength of its setting and time period. Really, there’s no excuse not to check this book out!
Rating 10: Rich, vibrant, transporting the reader into a time and place that feels magical, and I’m not only talking about the fantasy elements.
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