Review by Sean Dowie
[Potential Spoilers Below]
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a breath of fresh air for fantasy—even its whiffs of the familiar smell fresh. It’s not another Tolkien epigone with diminishing returns. It understands that we come from a vast, variegated world with plentiful cultures and mythology. Why flog a dead horse when you can nurture a live one? One such under explored mythology is Mexican folklore: a tangled, complex web of gods, magic, and worlds laying beyond ours.
The story starts out in 1920s Mexico, with our protagonist, Casiopea Tun, living with her domineering grandfather and belligerent cousin, Martín. She’s relegated to performing menial chores, hoping for something more, like a fairy tale protagonist waiting to bloom. If you’re reminded of shades of Cinderella, you’re not wrong. Like Cinderella, she is unshackled by magical forces, but instead of a perky fairy godmother coming to her aid, she frees and goes on a twisty, perilous quest with a vengeful Mayan Death God, Hun-Kamè (not a fairy, and more attractively low-key than perky).
At that point, the similarities to Cinderella end. It becomes an epic quest–one with piquant flavoring. Casiopea and Hun-Kamè join forces to depose the other Death God, the traitorous, odious Vucub-Kamè, from his throne in the Underworld. Just as Hun-Kamè gets a human to help him, so does Vucub-Kamè: that awful cousin Martín. As Casiopea and Hun-Kamè go out and explore, the possibilities of the story expand. Casiopea’s overbearing life of the quotidian is no more, and the journey beautifully inserts gods, magicians, and monsters with varying degrees of enchantment, fearsomeness, and creative construction that you almost can’t believe were conjured by human brains.
There is a romance between Casiopea and the death god Hun-Kamè, full of believable interactions and baby steps toward fully formed love. It’s fitting that the heroes’ journey, rife with obstacles of epic proportions, has a romantic arc that is just as nuanced, with just as much various linking pieces as the novel’s expansive action.
I don’t categorically reject insta-love, but it was wise not to incorporate it here. Casiopea, feeling finally free, is learning to navigate the world, and needs time to orient herself not just to the environments around her, but to extrafamilial ties—social connections deeper than her power-hungry grandfather and abusive cousin. And Hun-Kamè, for reasons I won’t disclose, is feeling a wider gradience of emotions, not just because he’s free after an interminable time trapped in solitude, but because feelings that were once alien to him are materializing in his mind.
Speaking of which, this novel materialized emotions in my mind that were once alien to me, trapped in my subconscious and plumbed by this novel for maximum emotional gut punches. Credit to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing for playing a part in that. It’s poetic and lyrical without being overwritten. The poeticism never stalls the story but smooths it—the descriptions are impressively creative and expertly constructed, propelling the story forward without any turbulence. By having descriptions that dig up truth from literary prowess is a skill that feels otherworldly. This otherworldly language befits the story as the magic and fantastic beings Casiopea encounters along the way are also otherworldly, and, like the writing, often achieve a near unattainable beauty.
There’s not just lyrical depth here, there are also thematic ones. Gods of Jade and Shadow explores duality in many facets, whether it’s the duality of the vibrant Middleworld (our world) and the nebulousness and impermanent, shifting layout of the Underworld. Or the duality of the two heroes and two antagonists. Both antagonists feel that they’ve been overshadowed by the heroes. They have an inferiority complex that they hope to end by vanquishing their perceived superior rival. The difference between the two antagonists is that Vucub-Kamè was born in a hierarchal-ly lower status than Hun-Kamè before he got revenge and attained the throne. Martín, on the other hand, had Casiopea essentially be his servant—he was born into power. But even though she is of an inferior class, she impresses the family more with her various skills. If her genetics and womanhood in a society of misogyny didn’t hold her back, she’d be in power. Martín sees that and envies the talents and competence that his grandfather sees in her, spurring him on his showcase of rage-fuelled machismo.
Elements like having Martín often show bouts of rage is easy to predict, but the novel is full of surprises. Some of the audience might be able to foretell the destination of the story, but the journey is where the unpredictability lies. The climax lives up to its buildup and clashes all the themes and conflicts, including jealousy, sacrifice, and reconciliation, in a couple loaded confrontations that aren’t flashy but checks off everything you could hope for, while delivering a gut-punch of a crescendo. The novel is a glitzy ride that flips you upside down, fills you with adrenaline, and runs completely smoothly without fail, until you’re back at your expected destination, thinking I want to go on that again.
A crux of the story that I haven’t mentioned is of a mortal person siphoning the immortality of a god. That said mortal person achieves a godlier status, becoming more impressive in every quality. This is analogous to the relationship between Tolkien epigones and fantasy that strives for more. As European fantasies siphon every last drop it can from its subgenre, it, like the immortal, wanes. Diverse fantasy, particularly fantasy that spotlights POC is only gaining power, with more freshness to siphon, increasing in every quality as more voices and a wider audience support it. Instead of wobbling forward, it’s advancing with vigor. The electrifying, honeyed prose, fresh perspective on a fantastical quest, and detailed characters and development show that fantasy isn’t dying, it’s just alive in different places than some expect.