“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.”
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a light, fairytale-esque read focusing on Mayan and Mexican history and mythology. Set in the 1920s, the midst of the jazz era, the setting comes across as different and refreshing given how infrequently Mexico is featured in non-translated fantasy. I would recommend this to people who are looking for fantasy that straddles the line between adult and YA content. It’s quick-moving with characters who conform to existing archetypes. Although there is nothing particularly ground-breaking in this novel, it is overall competently written and something I’d consider to be a good vacation read.
The novel opens with Casiopea, our main character, trapped beneath the thumb of an oppressive grandfather and cousin. She receives the classic Cinderella treatment, albeit without actually having a secret royal heritage. Her cousin is angry and jealous at her intelligence and due to her small rebellions and attempts at independence – how dare she not know her place, after all? Casiopea’s frustration at the restrictions placed on her ultimately come to a head when she opens a locked chest in her grandfather’s room hoping to steal any hidden gold or money he has squirreled away. Inside the chest lies the trapped God of Death, Hun-Kame, who whisks Casiopea away on an adventure to recover his missing body parts and defeat his usurper brother, Vucub-Kame.
“Casiopea rested both hands on the chest and for a moment considered leaving well enough alone. But she was angry, and more than that, curious. What if indeed there was money locked away in there? The old man owed her something for her suffering.
Everyone owed her.
Casiopea inserted the key and turned the lock, and flipped the lid open.”
Casiopea comes off as a somewhat lukewarm attempt at a strong, feminist main character. While I like that she doesn’t simply roll over when she is told by either the god of death or her family to do something, she ultimately does do whatever it was which was asked of her… even when she has severe reservations and good reasons not to do so. I appreciated that it was framed as her choice, given that she was blood-bound to Hun-Kame and her life is on the line as much as his if he doesn’t overcome Vucub-Kame, but at the end of the day… she still spends most of the novel doing whatever a man tells her to do. While she may talk the talk, she stumbles a bit when attempting to walk the walk. Given the time period this is set as well as her background, it’s understandable that she’d have trouble removing herself from this dynamic. However, I typically would expect this to be addressed over the course of the story arc. As the story progresses and finally climaxes deep in the underworld, Xibalba, the opposite proves to be true. Rather than finding independence, she merely transfers her obedience over to someone who gives her a taste of adventure and a change of scenery.
The romance elements also leave a bit to be desired, as they feel more YA than adult. Honestly, I think that the book could have used a bit of spicing up overall. Physical affection or (gasp!) sex would have made the match feel a bit more realistic and intense. I didn’t feel it was poorly handled, per se, just that it would have been better if it had looked to romance novels that deal with this sort of situation. Romance is a difficult craft and requires a great deal of care and attention. The relationship between Hun-Kame and Casiopea felt juvenile at best, though I’ll admit that had I read it as a teen I likely would have eaten it up. It was still fun to read as an adult, but it’s hard to become as invested when you’ve “been there and done that.”
“In Uukumil, when she’d gone to fetch a few items from the general store, on an occasion when she forgot to bring her shawl and conceal her hair with it, she’d caught the eye of one of the boys who worked there. He was the shopkeeper’s assistant, and on that summer day he was carrying a heavy sack of flour in his arms. When she walked in and began reading out the list of supplies, he lost his hold on the sack and dropped it, the flour spilling over the floor. Casiopea remembered three children, who were also in the store, giggling at the mishap, and she’d blushed because the boy had stared at her. Not a normal stare, if there was such a thing, but a startling look of eagerness.
Casiopea recognized the look on Hun-Kame’s face: it was that same look, more engrossed if anything, heavier than the brief flicker of a look she caught in Uukumil before she mumbled an apology and stepped outside the store.
This look went to her head. It was stronger than the champagne and she gripped his hand tight and she would have stumbled if he hadn’t held her against him.
“I wish we could keep dancing too,” he said.”
The prose and style of the tale is heavily steeped in the oral-storytelling tradition. Growing up in Oregon (USA), we often learned about old Native American legends and tales, which had a similar structure and similar dialogue. While this can come off somewhat stilted to the modern reader, this was in part a conceit that allows the tales to be remembered more clearly by the storyteller. There is repetition, several conflicts which are similar but escalated, and a clear path to an inevitable end. Unfortunately, this means that for the vast majority of the novel, there is very little actual threat or tension. It’s obvious to the reader that Hun-Kame and Casiopea will triumph in the first few trials, and they do so without having to sacrifice anything of major import and without having to work overly hard at it. As in the legends, there’s usually only one trick needed on the part of the heroes to win up until the final battle… and that’s true here as well. This comes off a bit underwhelming to a modern reader.
This book is good for what it is: a light story focusing on an often overlooked subsection of myths and legends. It tells its story without any bells or whistles. While it is not flawless nor a standout, I would recommend it to anyone who’s a bit tired of stale European settings and is looking for something with a slightly different flavor.