Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In a sleepy Yucatan town where her family sits atop the social pyramid in the 1920s, Casiopea Tun discovers how they came to occupy that condition. It’s an act of rebellion against her tyrannical grandfather, who took her and her mother back into the family home when her father died, but never ceased to remind them how much they owed him, and how favored other family members were. Casiopea’s cousin Martín is her particular nemesis. He’s a big fish in a teeny-weeny pond, sure of himself as only the spoiled scion of a rich clan can be, and insecure as only a young man who has never really achieved anything on his own can be. To make matters worse, he knows that grandfather Tun really thinks Casiopea is the one with gumption, but she’s a girl and can’t count in his version of the world. “Too bad you’re not a boy” has cut both members of the younger generation to the quick.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The skeletons in the family closet turn out to be just one skeleton, and it’s in a locked chest instead of a closet. It also turns out to be the skeleton of a Mayan death god. Mean grandfather Tun helped the now-skeletal god’s slightly younger twin chop of his head and usurp his role as ruler of the underworld. But gods are tricky to kill, and Hun-Kamé was only partly dead and mostly locked inside a chest. When Casiopea springs the lock, the bones spring back together, except for one small shard that springs into her hand.

That little link to a mortal is what Hun-Kamé needs to become a lot less dead, and boy is he not happy with his brother. Unfortunately for Casiopea, having a little bit of a death god lodged inside her is bad news indeed. Her essence will gradually flow to him, until she is all used up. Conversely, though, the mortal essence will bring him further from his godly nature, possibly trapping him into the existence of a single finite lifetime. Vucub-Kamé, the usurping brother, has laid a cunning trap; further, he has taken three more parts of Hun-Kamé and given them to allies around Mexico. The more time that Hun-Kamé uses up recollecting himself, the closer he is to losing his godly aspect. That time will bring Casiopea closer to death, but that’s something that Vucub-Kamé doesn’t care about in the least. Casiopea, the main point of view character in Gods of Jade and Shadow of course sees it differently. What about Hun-Kamé? What does a mortal, this particular mortal, mean to him? That’s one of the book’s key questions.

Moreno-Garcia captures the oppressive feeling of being a smart teen with dreams stuck in an utter nowhere town and put upon by everyone in sight. It’s no wonder that Casiopea rebels and leaves without looking back the first chance she gets. I also enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s depiction of Jazz Age Mexico, reeling from the Revolution, seeing a new age ushered in, yet so attached to the priests and morals of the old. She also convincingly brings the land-based magic of the Yucatan and the cosmology of Mayan death gods to, um, life.

Occasional infelicities of language — characters who speak of processing their feelings, for example — brought me unwillingly from the 1920s to the 2020s and broke part of the spell. The three missing parts of Hun-Kamé probably also work better for people who haven’t read a zillion fantasy books. I never harbored any doubts that he and Casiopea would collect the parts, though the search did have some good scenes, and of course it served the plot purpose of allowing the essences of Hun-Kamé and Casiopea to mix, bringing each closer to an undesired state. I just wish Moreno-Garcia had found a less transparent way to reach those objectives. I didn’t exactly skim the sections where they are reconstructing Hun-Kamé, but it was clear where they were going and clear that they were going to get there.

Fortunately, the set of confrontations that end the novel are as strong as the evocation of the Yucatan at the beginning. The brothers, the cousins, old ways and new, mortal and immortal, life and death, essence and illusion, each part of a pair is pitted against its counterpart in a race that will determine the fate of gods and humans.

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