Gods of Jade and Shadow
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 24, 2019
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Silvia Moreno-Garcia's fourth novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, will be published in one month, July 23. I pre-ordered the hardcover last November, and hopefully will receive it on release day, but I was also lucky in getting an e-ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It is set in the Yucatan and other places across Mexico, with a side-trip to El Paso, in the latter half of the 1920s. The mythological gods and demons it depicts are derived from the Popul Vuh. In a glossary at the end, the author says there is not one homogenous Mayan language, but rather many variations from different tribes throughout Mexico and Central America. She gives several derivations of the names of the two main gods of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld, but I found other spellings on wikipedia. However spelled or pronounced, their names translate to "One Death" and "Seven Deaths."
Casiopea Tun is an eighteen-year-old girl living in the small village of Uukumil. She is a poor relation living in the household of her grandfather Cirilo Leyva, descendant of Spanish conquerors. Her mother is one of Cirilo's daughters, her father was Mayan, but he died when she was a child. He had instilled in her a fascination with reading and learning, including poetry and astronomy. She keeps his memory alive by gazing at the stars at night, repeating as many of their names as she can remember. She treasures her father's books, but also reads newspapers and magazines, longing to see the world beyond her village. She is little more than a servant in her grandfather's house, belittled and scorned by her cousin Martín, whose father has also died, and since he is the only son of Cirilo's only son, he knows he is heir to the Leyva fortune. All of this changes when Casiopea stumbles upon her grandfather's secret, the skeleton of the god Hun-Kamé, trapped at the behest of his brother god, Vucub-Kamé. When she first discovers the skeleton a small sliver of bone shard is embedded in her left hand, which quickly burrows under the skin before she can pull it out. Hun-Kamé's body quickly reconstitutes, and he swears he will remove the bone from her hand if she helps him retrieve other portions of his body that have been hidden by his brother. He is missing one ear, one finger, and one eye, although Casiopea had not noticed that until he mentioned them, mainly because she had been mesmerized by his regal and handsome features.
I won't detail much of the plot, other than saying Casiopea and Hun-Kamé's search takes them first to Mérida, then to Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and Tijuana, and finally to Tierra Blanca on the west coast of Baja California. There Vucub-Kamé has built a palatial hotel and casino. The piece of bone in her hand ties her closely to Hun-Kamé, embuing her with sensory and observational powers she had not possessed before. That was balanced by the fact that until he could retrieve his other body parts, and that bone shard, he would become mortal and more vulnerable. Along with Casiopea shedding her pre-conceived notions of herself, of life, and of love, the story also deals with the many changes taking place across Mexico, just a few years following the revolution that overthrew Porfirio Díaz. Before, the fashions and morés had been patterned after the Spanish, then the French, but now the American Jazz Age is in full swing. The country is modernizing at a rapid rate, with fast cars and fast dancing, Art Nouveau giving way to Art Deco.
Casiopea drinks it all in, embracing the newness easier than one might have expected of a poor girl from humble origins. The way she reacts to the gods, demons, and other spirits might also be surprising to some readers. If this was a film, Casiopea might be labled a "Mary Sue" by some critics, but her journey and transformation wasn't surprising for me. She had already been subjected to the arrogance and pettiness of her grandfather and cousin, the quarrels of the gods was not much different. She had honed her intelligence and ambitions on stories and myths, on her fantasies of the outside world, so when confronted with them she met them head-on, and with confidence. Yes, she had fears, but even if she was beaten by the gods it would not be much different than what she had envisioned her life would be if she wasn't able to leave Uukumil. She had already sacrificed much in her life, when it came to the sacrifice she chose for Hum-Kamé she was able to meet it calmly and with conviction.
Silvia is still one of my favorite authors of recent years, she hasn't disappointed me yet. Her characters are always well-developed and convincing, her exposition visually dynamic, everything coming to life in my mind's eye. Casiopea reminded me of Amelia in the novella Prime Meridian. Both are intelligent but hampered by economics and familial obligations. At least Casiopea is able to venture beyond what she ever thought possible. She had dreamed of driving an automobile, and of standing on the shores of the Pacific, both of which she accomplishes. I suspect there is much more she will be able to see and experience as her future unfolds. I read an uncorrected proof, and while I'm not supposed to quote anything until the finished book, I'm going to disregard that. I will edit this later if the sentence is altered. It pertains to Casiopea's fantasies, something Hum-Kamé says about them. "Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there's power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power." That's a perfect description of how Silvia's stories affect me.
Silvia's Official Website
My reviews of her other books
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