The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in her 1920s-set historical fantasy, Gods of Jade and Shadow, immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other. The author of Signal to Noise and The Beautiful Ones is known for celebrating remarkable heroines of Mexican heritage, and her protagonist Casiopea Tun certainly does not disappoint.
Casiopea is a star-crossed Cenicienta who refuses to let fate, mysticism, prophecies and other such rubbish dictate her life. Scorned and neglected by her wealthy family because of her supposedly bastard heritage, she opts for curiosity and wit over lashing out against her cantankerous grandfather, Cirilo Leyva, and dangerously spoiled cousin, Martín. When the imaginative Casiopea opens a mysterious locked chest in Cirilo’s bedroom à la Pandora, she unleashes the bones of one of the gods of the underworld: the stoic and dryly humorous Hun-Kamé, former (and self-titled “rightful”) Lord of Xibalba.
After learning that she is inextricably bound to Hun-Kamé until he is able to defeat his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, and that she and Martín will play important roles in the battle for the crown, the simultaneously sheltered and exploited Casiopea embarks on a cross-country, darkly whimsical adventure to both restore Hun-Kamé to the throne and regain her independence. Casiopea is not a damsel in distress, but rather a young woman coming of age in a time where music, myth, art and exploration thrum colorfully around her, and her affinity for poetry and storytelling, gleaned from her deceased father, keeps her motivated and hopeful.
Casiopea explores what it means to live on the fringe—she is neither Tun nor Leyva, of Middleworld nor Xibalba, country girl nor flapper of Mexico City’s Jazz Age renaissance—while learning about love and loss, grief and greed, strength and perseverance. Unlike her namesake in Greek mythology, she is far from vain, possessing instead resourcefulness and a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Casiopea encounters demons, succubi, monsters and sorcerers along the way, from Tierra Blanca to the Black Road—settings that glimmer like the Mayan obsidian and jade that the gods are so fond of. The book also includes bleak but nonetheless vivid depictions of Xibalba itself, a nightmarish hellscape home to dangerous, but wondrous, beings.
Readers will be floored by Moreno-Garcia’s painstaking attention to detail. Her descriptions of the emotionally charged interactions between realistic human characters and otherworldly gods, witches and demonic forces are unforgettable, as are as the fairy-tale and folktale aspects of the plot. As Hun-Kamé and Casiopea grow closer, physically and psychologically, the two experience and share what it truly means to live—and die. When Casiopea enters her new life, she is assured that “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”