“Even though I’m all grown up, I feel like I’m always looking for that magical fairy tale, the one that speaks to the kid in me while still appealing to the adult I am. And I found just that in Gods of Jade and Shadow.”
Yun, in her review on Goodreads
There’s a special kind of warmth in traditional fairy tales that is not easily evoked in contemporary fiction. Yet, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow imaginatively uses a familiar Cinderella trope to build a foundation of a story that recreates our earliest reading experiences in a magic realist setting. This is why the comment quoted above seems so relatable and so reflective of the novel’s spirit that is pulsating with music, emotions, and creativity.
Inspired by Mayan folk tales, this historical fantasy revives ancient myths and legends amidst the bustling Jazz Age Mexico, where a battle of gods that is about to take place.
But this battle will have to wait for Casiopea Tun to finish sweeping the floors of her grandfathers’ house.
The novel opens with a Cinderella-like narrative that sets the tone and structure of the story. The destitute yet strong-willed Casiopea feels hopeless in a remote Yucatan village until a sequence of magical events starts unfolding when she accidentally releases a Mayan death god Hun-Kamé. Bonded to her by a bone shard, the god asks her to follow him on a picaresque adventure as he seeks to recover his missing jade necklace and body parts (an eye, an ear, and an index finger).
Strikingly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and his magical relics (a helm, a bag of sand, and a ruby), Hun-Kamé’s quest also involves a series of unlikely encounters with ghosts, demons, and witches.
We’ll meet a Mam, one of the three Mayan earth deities known as Mamlab; Loray (also Leraje), the Great Marquis of Hell; Xtabay, a demonic femme fatale from Yucatec Maya folklore; Camazotz, a bat spirit serving the gods of the underworld; and Huay Chivo, a demon traditionally presented as half-goat and half-man.
Banished from Xibalba, these displaced creatures are trying to navigate the modern world that barely remembers its ancient deities. Camouflaged as humans, they lead prosaic lives and hope that someday their former glory will be reinstituted after Hun-Kamé’s twin brother Vucub-Kamé takes over the underworld once and for all. His desire to recreate a world where gods still have a meaning in human daily lives and can influence them is the core point of the centuries-long conflict between the two brothers. To resolve it, they will resort to the help of humans – Casiopea and her cousin Martin, who will be required to walk the Black Road of Xibalba and determine the winner.
“Then gods don’t fight with swords, but they can be as petty as men.”
This dazzling world of deities is contrasted with the vibrant 1920s Mexico, whose emerging lifestyle and fashion occupy Casiopea’s mind as much as the faithful task ahead of her. During her journey with Hun-Kamé, she’ll undergo a significant physical transformation by embracing the modern dress cut and hairstyle. At the same time, she’ll acquire new views of life and a romantic experience that will help her fully develop into a courageous, resolute, and independent modern woman.
The romance element is also an important layer of this genre-bending story, making the story more touching and more relatable to an everyday human. Through the vivid characters with real-life emotions about their improbable destinies, Moreno-Garcia brings the story of her heritage closer to us and reminds us of the incredible power of mythical storytelling. At the same time, Casiopea’s own journey inspires us to dare, to love, and to embrace the intricate workings of fate that we can spend our lifetime questioning, but that we can never control. As such, it is a unique contemporary fairy tale that is likely to appeal to anyone seeking the almost forgotten feel of fantasy storytelling.