The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
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.
Gods of Jade and Shadow feels told rather than read, and it pulled me back into the memory of the stories my mother used to tell me.
I was a restless child, always floating, unable to settle in my skin, but my mother’s storyteller’s cadence could quiet the world around me into stillness, freeze it. My mother did not rob her stories of their sharp edges. She did not drape them in a silk sheet, did not sweeten the nightmares into dreams. Instead, she sliced through her tales, swift and harsh as ax-fall: men lured to their death by beautiful women with hoofed legs, beast-headed widows who dwell among the dead, old women draped in haiks snatching wandering children, and lovers from rivaling tribes doomed to eternal exile in an empty desert. Each tale was more fascinating than the last, ghouls and djinns, the humans who held them in thrall and those who were held captive by them.
I used to listen with the gaze of someone who didn’t want to listen, but who had to, who must know the end to the story, even as my hammering heart sat high in my chest, and my eyes stung, and my skin prickled with the rush of my questions. I listened, and listened, and absorbed the words, even as they absorbed me, until I fell prey to the torrents of the unconscious, the dark behind my eyelids opening up, swirling my mother’s tales into a riot of dreams.
I felt a lingering sense of possession after I closed this book, and I can recognize it now for what it was: a deep pang of familiarity. Indeed, Gods of Jade and Shadow carries the life-and-death stakes of my mother’s tales. “I’m here,” the story said, bristling along my spine. “Sit up. Pay attention,” and just like that, I forgot myself into its pages. I lost my way, willingly.
Once upon a time there was a girl who knew the world was big, and she was sick of pretending it was smaller. Her name was Casiopea.
Casiopea wanted to get away—from her grandfather’s voice like the snap of a whip, her cousin’s cruel taunts like a boy pulling the wings off a fly, the litany of chores and the life that pinched like tight shoes.
One day, Casiopea opened a chest in her grandfather’s room, and found it full of bones. While rummaging inside for a secret compartment, a shard of bone lodged itself in her hand, and the Mayan god of death, Hun-Kamé, rose to face her, for Casiopea’s blood had set the Lord of Shadows and ruler of Xibalba well, and truly, and forcibly free.
Well, almost free.
There was a line between life and death, and Hun-Kamé and Casiopea now both stood upon it. Together they must journey across two peninsulas looking for Hun-Kamé’s missing parts, so the last, brittle thread tying Hun-Kamé to the will of his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, may be broken, and the one tying Casiopea to Hun-Kamé—snagged in her hand like a poison slowly leeching into her bloodstream—may also be severed.
Casiopea knew the world was big, and as Death walked beside her, and another kind of death hung over both of their heads like a cloud threatening thunder, the whole world was laid out like a feast for her, and it was like seeing a wish she never thought to make for herself come true.
But wishes, as wishes often do, come with danger and often end in doom.
“Anyone who expects sweetness from the grave is a fool.”
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a book that delighted me, pained me, and enchanted me at every turn. The details of character, dialogue and setting held me like a swift-running current, and I was lost inside the web of luxurious prose that slowly unfolds to uncover the complexities of history, geography, and mythology.
At its core, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a love story—or at least the first fragile unfurling of one—with its variously tragic and joyful twists. Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s story felt as fragile as the finest porcelain, or a kiss you pretend never happened once you come up for air, and it lodged inside my chest like a hook.
Hun-Kamé was the god of death, with or without his throne, and Casiopea knew all about gods: the violence of their temper and the shifting nature of their whims, how she—as maidens in stories often are—would be but a blip on the otherwise uninterrupted pattern of Hun-Kamé’s immortality. “Was I cruel?” Hun-Kamé asks Casiopea at one point, “I was a god; you might as well ask the river if it is gentle in its path, or the hail whether it hurts the land when it strikes it.”
But what Casiopea and Hun-Kamé held between them is the kind of deep, wounded familiarity that comes from traveling with someone, recklessly, curiously, into the unknown in the hopes of finding yourself. Those moments when they would both sit still and hold each other’s gaze, as though seeing some greater part of each other, made for the novel’s most heart-aching bits. Moments when they would lean into each other, and Casiopea would confess the dreams and desires she used to carry within her in fragments tucked like bookmarks between the dull movement of her days, and when the rime of ice Hun-Kamé had placed around his eyes would slip and he would, in return, let her see the desperate fizz of panic that kicks up in his gut at the thought of losing himself to his temporary mortality, of forgetting who he is.
He’d fallen in love slowly and quietly, and it was a quiet sort of love, full of phrases left unsaid, laced with dreams. He had imagined himself a man for her, and he allowed her to see the extent of this man, and he gave her this speck of heart, which was a man, to hold for a moment before taking it back the second before it faded.
But Gods of Jade and Shadow is just as much about power too—what it means to be someone whose wishes the world simply bends to meet, to seek power at greatest cost and rise to heights you did not even know the words to wish for, to have it stripped away from you and feel like you’ve been hollowed out with a carving knife—and about myth and stories and another kind of power held within them.
Above all, it’s about the freeing lightness of hurling yourself past a point of no return, of being someone for whom the world is young and full of possibility. Someone who hungers, and yearns, for the vastness of all there is, for something better. That hunger beats in the novel’s pages like drumming under the ground. Gods of Jade and Shadow is full to the brim with it, spilling over. It’s there, in the way Casiopea is sick of the small spaces the world expected her to fit, and sick of the men to whom she will only ever be a woman. An echo of that yearning shadows Hun-Kamé’s, journey too. Hun-Kamé feels a hollowness in him where his kingdom, Xibalba, used to be, and in the darkness, he wasn’t even afforded the soft comfort of dreams. Even Vucub-Kamé, Hun-Kamé’s usurper brother, was not unburdened by longing. Hun-Kamé’s past continuous dismissal of Vucub-Kamé’s ideas and his expectations of blind deference burned in Vucub-Kamé like molten iron forged into a blade of resentment, and he yearned to break free, to be master of his own will. With their wants and longings, Hun-Kamé and Vucub-Kamé each thought themselves to be the hero. Two proud gods, fractious and unyielding, each certain their kingdom would fail without them, each determined the other would not bowl him over but bow before him. And their journeys are just as riveting and just as important as Casiopea’s, even though they are in opposition most of the time.
Even Martin, Casiopea’s cousin, who often wanders into the story in such casual, slantwise ways, seethes with a storm of longings. Martin longed to earn his grandfather’s approval, and that desire burrowed deep in him. Jealous of his little power and endowed with the baseless arrogance that so often plagues young men, Martin is adamant on drawing his cousin, Casiopea, back to the bars of their grandfather’s house instead of the gaps she’s found between them, and he wanted to belive, desperately, that by exacting his grandfather’s wish and returning Casiopea home, he would finally earn that fickle approval.
It’s greater than you or I, this tale.
Gods of Jade and Shadow comes to a pitch-perfect conclusion, subverting several threadbare tropes while gracefully landing on a significant thematic note. I’m grateful the author did not rob her story of its sharp edges either, because I can’t conceive of a more satisfying ending.
If you liked this review or found it useful please consider supporting me on Ko-fi!