Monday, July 22, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Excellent characters and well-crafted adventure make this historical fantasy take on Mayan mythology a highlight of the year so far.

Cover illustration by Daniel Pelavin
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an author I'd follow into almost any genre, and that's a good thing given how varied her career has been so far. From the 80's nostalgia-heavy Signal to Noise to the romance fantasy of manners The Beautiful Ones, to the criminally underrated sci-fi novella Prime Meridian and even the editorial work she does on The Dark Magazine (a recent addition to my short fiction rounds), Garcia brings talent, nuance and a particular eye for female characters challenging overwhelming imbalances in power over the forces against them. Now, in Gods of Jade and Shadow, Moreno-Garcia brings her talents to a historic fantasy where 1920's Jazz Age Mexico meets the gods and monsters of Mayan mythology, taking protagonist Casiopea Tun on an unexpected but long-dreamed-of adventure with a deposed Lord of the Underworld.

Casiopea's character is rooted in a satisfying set of tropes, and the novel wastes no time in establishing her position in its opening paragraph: "Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament". Living in her Grandfather's house after the untimely death of her father, who her mother had previously eloped with, Casiopea suffers all the indignities of a poor relation, scorned by her extended family and community for the circumstances of her birth and for her mixed heritage, and particularly suffers at the hands of her cousin Martín, himself jealous and insecure about his position in the family as a toxic patriarch in training. Despite the misery of her situation, it's clear from the start that Casiopea is something special, and she's armed with both a heavily practical streak and a core of stubborn strength and self-belief which prevents her from being totally ground down by circumstance. While the character isn't inclined to romance, it's clear to the reader that the small, conservative town of Uukumil on the Yucutan Peninsula is unlikely to hold her for long.

Just as Gods of Jade and Shadow doesn't waste any time in setting up Casiopea's circumstances, it also doesn't waste any time in bringing her out of them (two chapters, to be precise). In a fit of frustration after an unjust punishment, Casiopea opens a mysterious forbidden chest in her Grandfather's room, and out comes Hun-Kamé, formerly Lord of Xibalba, who was deposed and imprisoned by his brother Vucub-Kamé decades before. As a condition of his awakening, Hun-Kamé leaves a shard of bone in Casiopea's finger, and it quickly becomes clear that the only way the two can untangle themselves from this new connection is for Casiopea to help the God to regain his former power - held in body parts which his brother has relieved him of and left with various other supernatural creatures - and challenge his brother for control of the underworld. Despite her concerns about eloping with a God without any long-term plan, Casiopea agrees, and the two set off on their adventures; once Vucub-Kamé realises that his brother has escaped, he descends on the family and sends Martín on his own, more reluctant, quest to stop them.

The result is an adventure that reads at times like a more adult-focused version of a Frances Hardinge novel, allowing its practical heroine to take in and respond to the changing, complex and sometimes hostile world around her, both in its natural and supernatural forms; and at other times like a lush mythological retelling, with Casiopea, Martin and the God siblings providing a sense of character-driven continuity between the historic and supernatural elements of the plot. The fact that it's a Mayan mythology being explored, rather than any of the Western European mythologies (or Egypt) which have had already had plenty of SFF expended about them (including a significant amount which transplants European mythologies directly into North America with no recognition of the continent's native belief systems), is treated matter-of-factly but accessibly, and there's plenty of recognition within the worldbuilding about the situation of Mayan Gods in an early 20th century Mexico now primarily caught between Catholic religious conservatism and a more agnostic state of modernity. Moreno-Garcia uses a writing style which morphs sparingly but effectively out of limited third-person perspective to provide descriptive flavour or character insights, giving Gods of Jade and Shadow a timeless-feeling narrative voice which is well suited to the context. As Casiopea and Hun-Kamé progress from Uukumil to Mérida (the capital of Yucutan, and formerly the locus of Casiopea's dreams of escape) and on to Mexico City, El Paso and the realm of Xibalba itself, so too do Casiopea's hopes and fears, both for the short term quest, and for her future in general, become increasingly complicated by the experiences on the quest, and particularly her feelings for Hun-Kamé, who is now becoming increasingly human through their connection, and equally taken by her charms in turn.

While this isn't a romance in the strict genre sense, the romantic elements of Gods of Jade and Shadow are prominent and key to the character development, and the speed of the connection between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé is satisfying to watch unfold, while also adding an interesting complication to their quest - Casiopea will die if she can't return Hun-Kamé to his normal state and remove the shard of his bone from her finger, but the human side of him which allows him to love her won't survive the transformation. The connection between the two characters, and the no-win situation they find themselves in, also allows Casiopea to explore her own powerlessness in the face of the various demons, ghosts and other entities they come across, and in the direction of their quest in general: while Hun-Kamé relies on her humanity to perform certain types of ritual and, as their connection deepens, to contribute more godlike powers of her own, it's clear that Casiopea has mixed feelings about how her escape from Uukumil has come about, her lack of agency on a quest that's entirely driven by Hun-Kamé's needs, and the lack of options for her post-quest future in a world that's still driven by patriarchal expectations about the roles of women. In the end, the fact that Gods of Jade and Shadow doesn't take a romance-genre driven approach to Casiopea's happiness means that there's more freedom to explore these themes without assuming that her connection to Hun-Kamé can provide a solution, and Gods of Jade and Shadow's final act is all the stronger for it, turning into a full-on mythological quest before offering the characters a satisfying resolution which remains true to the themes of humanity and freedom that permeate the text.

Moreno-Garcia didn't need any further cementing into my "auto-buy" list, but if I needed further convincing about her talents, this novel is it. Read it for the satisfying take on coming-of-age tropes in a fast-paced historical adventure; read it for a sweet take on the connection  between a Lord of the Underworld and a stubborn young woman that avoids most of the squickiness that so often comes of that kind of thing; read it because we desperately need more diverse mythologies in mainstream SFF and this delivers; read it because the cover is amazing and people on the train will look at it and be intrigued and probably think you are a very interesting and cultured person for reading such an attractive book. Throw it on the ever-mounting pile of evidence that we are living through an outstanding time for SFF writing. Yet again, this is the real deal, and I can't wait to see what Moreno-Garcia comes out with next.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Brilliant adventure which blends mythological storytelling with nuance that does justice to its characters

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Gods of Jade and Shadow [Jo Fletcher Books, 2019].