GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

New York: Del Ray, 2019. $26.00

(Text reviewed is an uncorrected reader’s copy obtained via Net Gallery.)

This is a curious novel, a hybrid creation of real imagination, that the publisher apparently had a little trouble categorizing. The publisher’s description called it a “one of a kind fairy tale”. People apparently read this to mean “young adult”. GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW is neither a fairy tale nor is it a young adult novel, even if it does have elements of the coming-of-age story. It is a mystery in the religious sense of that word, for it involves the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan gods of the Underworld. It does have elements of the thriller—chases, exotic locales, subterfuge, danger—but as a whole, GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW should be considered an adult fantasy novel.

Why is misclassification such a problem? Two reasons—it alienates readers who expect one thing and get another, and it undermines an author seeking to widen her/his audience appeal. I have a a book club colleague who will not finish a misclassified book. The disappointment in expectations, set by the the classification, is too great for her to bear. I had some of that experience. I took this novel in the expectation that it was as labeled—historical fiction and science fiction and fantasy. It is historical fantasy only in so far as it draws extensively on POPUL VUH; in any other sense, it might as well have been contemporary. That was disappointing.

The author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is a highly regarded Canadian author of Mexican heritage. She has written extensively in the realm of speculative fiction, including the acclaimed SIGNAL TO NOISE and THE BEAUTIFUL ONES, and dark fantasy verging on Lovecraftian horror, including CERTAIN DARK THINGS. She is also the publisher of Innismouth Free Press. She has edited the anthology CTHULHU’S DAUGHTERS and co-edits the horror magazine THE DARK.

I confess—I have never been a fan of horror. I am a historian by training, and there is enough horror in history to last several thousand lifetimes. My training also means I tend to be unforgiving when it comes to history used merely as Hollywood set dressing.

In a small Yucatán village, Casiopea Tun dreams about the stars and the big city—any place far away from the grind of being a poor relation in a wealthy family. She has intelligence and spirit, but being young and female in her position means she gets the scut work. Casiopea has to tend to her petty, irascible grandfather and suffer the demands and insults of her petty bully of a cousin, Martín. Her refusal not to squabble with the latter gets her left behind from a family outing. In a fit of  spiteful curiosity, Casiopea searches an old, but forbidden, chest in grandfather’s room. She discovers the bones of Hun Kamé, the deposed and dismembered Lord of Xibalba.

Bound to Hun Kamé by a bone shard in her finger, she is dragged along on his quest  to retrieve his missing body parts and to retake his throne in Xibalba. This quest takes them from her tiny village to the regional capital, Mérida, to Mexico City, to El Paso, Texas, and, finally, down the Black Road to Xibalba itself. This is a magical, Life—and Death—altering journey from which a new, empowered Casiopea Tun emerges. 

That is no surprise given that Casiopea encounters the reality of POPUL VUH. Not only does she meet Hun Kamé and Vicub-Kamé (One and Seven Death), the principal antagonists pulling and pushing at each other and Casiopea in a great game of sibling rivalry. Along the way, she meets demons, such as Xtabay, a sexy and seductive demon, who harbors ill will towards men. Casiopea is harassed by Martín, who is Vicub-Kamé’s chosen human and who is harassed, in turn by the god via his owl messengers. (These owls have nothing in common with the world of Harry Potter.) Even though the cousins begin to understand each other, they are the proxies or the champions for the gods, and by the end of the Black Road, there is no going back for them. In this mythos, the cousins, the gods, and the demons, can die, as evinced by the Hero Twins, themselves born from an immaculate conception. Altogether, it makes for a scary fantasy, where the race is run for very high stakes.

POPUL VUH suffuses every aspect of this novel, and that is its greatest strength. It is also its greatest weakness. Gods are not characters. They are too alien to be understood by mere mortals, even though they can be fascinating, exasperating, loved, and hated. All the emotional energy comes from the human side. The conflict between Hun Kamé and Vicub-Kamé is at once a cosmic power play and childish sibling rivalry. This weakness would be tolerable if the human characters could hold up their end of the story Casiopea can. Martín cannot. A paper tiger, he is merely a younger, more petty, less intelligent version of his grandfather.  He is neither threat nor foil for Casiopea.

In the usual historical fantasy, the story grows organically from the history. (See GRR Martin.) Here it is the mythology of the Mayans that generates many of the characters. They have to exist in a human world that is supposed to be 1927. Why that year I do not understand. There is very little that genuinely suggests 1927; a few quick references to types of automobiles, dresses, and coiffures does not a period make. Nor does stating it is the Jazz Age.

The reference to “talkies” was utterly misplaced. THE JAZZ SINGER, the first movie that used dialogue as part of the dramatic action, did not appear in Hollywood until October of 1927. It was not until after LIGHTS OF NEW YORK, among other talkies of 1928, that film studios took up production of the new type of movie. The studios did so with alacrity, but it would not have been until 1929 or 1930 that talkies had completely taken over. Why not set the novel a few years later, the 1930s, and bring in the beginnings of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (1933-1964). Casiopea could have truly talked about “stars” in that context. Was she a fan of Dolores del Rio or Maria Félix? Did she prefer Pedro Armendariz or Pedro Infante?

Characters have to think and behave by the dictates of their culture in a specific period. Whilst Casiopea has “small town girl” written all over her, she feels and, to a large extent, behaves in what seems to be a contemporary fashion.

A flawed opening novel of, perhaps, a series featuring Casiopea Tun. I would come back to the second book. Casiopea has potential—courage, intelligence, and spirit. Here, she is mostly knees, elbows, temper, and dreams. In any sequel, she would match up well against any man. After having been the human champion for the Lord of Xibalba, how is any man going to be challenge?

 Copyright KG Whitehurst
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