This review originally appeared on 80 Books Blog!
4 out of 5 stars ★★★ ★ ☆
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it–and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan God of Death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey, from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City–and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
Mixing the excitement of the Roaring Twenties with Prehispanic mythology, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a vivid, wildly imaginative historical fantasy.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
If there was ever a book that I needed in my life, it was this one. Since learning there are other mythologies besides Greek gods at a young age, I’ve been fascinated by these civilizations from central (Aztec/Maya) and southern (Inca) America. Even in college, I received a minor in Latin American studies because I was interested in taking courses on literature, anthropology, and Spanish language, learning as much as I could about these different types of cultures. I like learning about this! And there are not a lot of novels that feature Mayan gods! The only other “comparable” book I know of (someone rec me more Mayan/Aztec/Incan books, thanks) is Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard, but that is about Aztecs, not Mayans (and it’s set in the height of the Aztec empire, which is a very different vibe from this novel)! I know that Aztecs/Mayans/Incas are not the same so I do want to be considerate of each work that I read, just offering some context for why I’m so excited for this book. So when I heard about this book that not only features a Mayan God of Death, but is also set in 1920’s Jazz-age Mexico, I was elated–there are not enough novels like this! I have read one of the author’s other books, set in Mexico City, Signal to Noise, about childhood magic and music, but this novel sets an entirely different tone.
This is an adult fantasy novel. We’re introduced to Casiopea Tun, age 18, in the first few pages. She’s had a tough life. She and her mother live with Casiopea’s grandfather, Cirilo Leyva, after her father dies. Her grandfather constantly shames Casiopea and her mother for running away with a poet, a man of “indigenous extraction,” and, after her father dies, generally being down on their luck. She and her mother work in the house cleaning and cooking for the rest of the family to earn their keep. Casiopea is antagonized by her cousin Martín, who consistently bullies and berates her. Casiopea has dreams of moving away from the small town of Uukumil for a better life.
The catalyst for the story is that Casiopea releases Hun-Kamé, a Mayan god of death, from a chest in her grandfather’s room. Hun-Kamé was imprisoned there by his twin brother, Vacub-Kamé. When Casiopea released Hun-Kamé, a piece of his bone attached in her. Their life forces became intertwined. Together they travel across Mexico to recover pieces of Hun-Kamé that were scattered by Vacub-Kamé when he took usurped Hun-Kamé.
As you’re reading, it may become obvious that there is a lot of “telling” rather than “showing.” The author intentionally wanted the book to feel like the story was being relayed through spoken word. She elaborates more in the thread below (click through to read all of it):
This story telling method works for the novel. It never feels that we lack for description, every encounter with Mexico feels lush and beautiful. The entire journey through 1920’s Mexico feels true to the time. From Uukumil, the pair travel to Mérida by mule-pulled railcar, then from Mérida they travel by train, to Mexico City, and finally make their way to Baja, California. At each location they stop at lovely hotels, eat at local cafés, get new contemporary wardrobes, even Casiopea gets a roaring 20’s short flapper hairstyle. The descriptions of each location are nostalgic and lovely all in one. We’re seeing them through the eyes of Casiopea. I loved the fish out of water sense from both Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, who is the lord of the Underworld (Xibalba) and generally does not travel to the middle world of Earth. The characters are complex and have different motivations. When Casiopea releases Hun-Kamé from his prison, her motivations to help him are based on 1) she has to or she will die, but also 2) she has always wanted to get away from her grandfather’s house. As Casiopea and Hun-Kamé travel together, each gains what the other loses. Casiopea gains magical ability, while Hun-Kamé becomes more human. I loved their almost romance here. I don’t want to get into too many spoilers, but near the end when Casiopea thinks of a modern name for Hun-Kamé, it broke my heart for them!
Meanwhile, Casiopea’s cousin, Martín, is motivated to stop Casiopea on her journey with Hun- Kamé by 1) threats of death from Vacub-Kamé, and 2) by insecurity and change in the status quo. Martín is a good antagonist because he does have some inward reflection about why he does what he does, but ultimately Casiopea is able to stand up for herself and not be ruled by his or her grandfather’s decisions.
The story comes to a head in Baja, where Vacub-Kamé is amassing great amounts of power to take over the country and make people worship him and Xibalba again. Each brother uses their human counterpart in a contest across the underworld to determine once and for all who should rule.
This book was a lot of fun, besides my personal interest in this story, it moves quickly, has interesting characters and setting, and allows readers to be swept away by the grandeur of the time. My only tiny criticism is that I wish Casiopea cared more about leaving her mother behind, but really I understand the reasoning for decisions she made. In the author’s note in the back of the book, she mentions that this book is based off the Mayan myth of Popol Vuh, there’s also a glossary in the back for those who may not catch all the terms as they appear in the book. Thanks again to Del Rey books and NetGalley for letting me read this. It was one of my most anticipated books of the year and it did not disappoint.