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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a standalone Popol Vuh–inspired historical fantasy novel set during the 1920s, tells the story of a quest to reunite a formerly entrapped Mayan god of death with his missing eye, ear, and index finger—as the brother who separated him from his body parts and imprisoned him in the first place tries to thwart him in order to remain upon his throne.

The journey begins when eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun inadvertently frees the god, not realizing that the mysterious locked chest in her grandfather’s bedroom contains an imprisoned deity instead of the riches she imagined. When she reaches in to rummage for treasure hidden below the skeletal remains, a bone shard becomes embedded in her hand and the rest of the bones assemble before her, eventually settling into a fully formed—and completely naked—man. He claims to be the Supreme Lord of Xibalba, betrayed by his brother with the aid of Casiopea’s grandfather and now bound to Casiopea through the piece of himself in her hand. She will die if the bone shard is not removed soon, but the Supreme Lord of Xibalba cannot remove it since he’s not 100% pure god without his missing body parts and jade necklace. So Casiopea leaves home to join the search for the items that will restore him to full godhood, leading from her small Mexican town to cities in Mexico and the southern United States—and even into the depths of the Mayan underworld.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a charming tale of a young woman discovering how Mayan myths and legends intersect with the real world, narrated via the style of oral storytelling. The start is a little reminiscent of Cinderella given that Casiopea spends her days cleaning and running errands for other family members who treat her like dirt, plus it includes a brief mention of her being too focused on pragmatism to see herself as a tragic Cinderella-like figure. During earlier parts of the novel, I was thinking of it as being a tiny bit like the Disney version of Cinderella if she had a wicked cousin instead of wicked stepsisters, and if she had a Mayan god of death who made her dreams of traveling come true rather than a fairy godmother who sent her to the ball, and if she got fine dresses from a demon instead of that fairy godmother. I suppose one could say it’s also a tiny bit like Cinderella if the Mayan god were also the handsome prince, and if she were racing against the clock to remove a bone shard before it kills her rather than to get home before the magic expires, and if the ending were more bittersweet than happily ever after. But obviously, it becomes quite a stretch to compare the entire novel to the fairy tale after the first few chapters, even though there are some echoes of it with Casiopea’s situation and mistreatment.

I loved Casiopea herself and the way she responded to those injustices. She recognizes that the rest of their family is not fair to herself and her mother, and she does attempt to argue when she knows they are being unreasonable. Her mother chastises her for not just accepting the way things are and worries she will become bitter, but Casiopea does not hunger for vengeance. She simply believes that justice and mercy are worth fighting for, and she’s courageous and kind without being long-suffering or naively hopeful. I also found it interesting that Casiopea becomes less “ladylike” according to the standards set by her family and church throughout her adventure—donning modern fashions, getting a scandalously short haircut after sacrificing her long locks for necromancy, and generally engaging in activities she was taught would lead to burning in hell for all eternity (such as laying eyes upon an attractive naked man to whom she was not married, no matter how little control she had over the circumstances).

Casiopea’s dynamic with Hun-Kamé, the displaced Supreme Lord of Xibalba, is wonderful, especially earlier in the story before their shared link has begun to make him more mortal. He’s so serious that Casiopea’s sarcastic responses are completely lost on him, whether it’s about the simplicity of meeting a demon for the first time (“Do not sell him your soul and you’ll be fine,” he advises) or the purity of coffee (which he believes should never be adulterated with milk). He treats Casiopea with respect, which she is not accustomed to, and he sees her for who she is: someone with a brave, heroic heart. Though this is not a romance, there is a love story that develops between the two as they face obstacles together and Hun-Kamé finds it increasingly difficult to remember what it is to be a god.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fast-paced mythical expedition through a corner of the world (and underworld) and is a fantastic book when viewed as such, which is how I believe it’s intended. However, my personal taste does tend toward stories with more in-depth character development, and given that this quickly moves from place to place and character to character, there’s not a lot of time in which to get to know the characters. Not even the major characters—who also include Hun-Kamé’s treacherous brother and Casiopea’s cousin, whose stories also get some focus—are what I’d call three dimensional, although I did enjoy reading their tales. There were also times I found my eyes glazing over toward the middle, even though I was captivated by the beginning, end, and any part set in Xibalba. Those are minor issues overall but are the main reasons Gods of Jade and Shadow was one of my honorable mentions of 2019 instead of one of my favorites of the year.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a delightful novel inspired by Mayan myths and legends. It’s certainly one of the more notable books I discovered last year, and it’s also available in paperback today!

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Gods of Jade and Shadow