Gods of Jade and Shadow

One of the many reasons why it is good to have books written by people from different cultures is that they provide very different reading experiences. I loved Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise because it was, on the one hand, a great story about teenagers and love of music, and on the other set in Mexico City, a place that the author knew well. Reading about other worlds is what us speculative fiction readers are supposed to enjoy, right?

Gods of Jade and Shadow is also set in Mexico, but it goes back in time to the Roaring Twenties. Mexico is in the process of recovering from La Revolución. Meanwhile the USA is suffering under Prohibition, which is proving a big money earner for Mexico because hordes of rich Americans are coming south of a weekend for a beer or two. The book, however, is not about Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, nor is it about Al Capone and Eliot Ness. The story is both much more domestic, and much more epic in scale.

Casiopea Tun lives in a small town in Yucatán. When her beloved father — a keen amateur astronomer who named her — died young, she and her mother were thrown on the mercy of their rich relatives, the Leyvas. Grandpa Leyva is a selfish tyrant, and the rest of the family has learned from him. Casiopea and her mother are given a home, but are treated like servants. It is no life for an intelligent young girl, especially as Casiopea must share her new home with her cruel, stupid and arrogant cousin, Martín.

However, Grandpa Leyva has a secret. His source of wealth is not hard work, or good luck. Instead it is a consequence of a deal that he did in his youth; a deal with the God of Death.

We move now into the realm of the Mayan holy book, the Popol Vuh. This is a collection of mythological tales from the Kʼicheʼ people, one of the ethnic groups that made up the Mayan Empire. One of the greatest myths of the Kʼicheʼ is the tale of the Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, who travel to the Mayan underworld, Xibalba, and take on its rulers, Hun-Kamé and Vucub-Kamé. It appears, to my admittedly untrained eye, to be a tale about how the people rebelled against the human sacrifice of Ballcourt players.

This story is, of course, not about the Hero Twins. It is about Casiopea and Martín. Moreno-Garcia creates a new story using the materials from the Popul Vuh. It is a story about a revolution in hell. Vucub-Kamé has grown fed up of having to play second fiddle to his elder brother, Hun-Kamé. Also he has ambitions to restore the Mayan Empire to its former glory, whereas Hun-Kamé is content to let history take its course. So Vucub-Kamé, through a bit of divine trickery, manages to cut off the head of his brother and usurp the throne. However, he can’t kill Hun-Kamé, so he has the god’s bones locked in a casket and given to a convenient human for safekeeping.

What are young girls for, if not opening forbidden caskets?

The bulk of the book, therefore, is about how Casiopea and Hun-Kamé go on a quest to reclaim the throne of Xibalba. Along the way they must deal with demons and sorcerers, against a beautifully drawn backdrop of 1920s Mexico. The inevitable conclusion takes place in Xibalba itself, and features characters such as the great Death Bat, Kamazotz.

The mythological shape of the story is predictable. What is different about this story is what it brings to Mayan mythology. The denizens of Xibalba are terrifying beings who revel in human sacrifice. However, during their quest the human girl and the death god must learn to work together. They cannot be unchanged by that experience.

You don’t get many fantasy novels that use the Popul Vuh as a setting. There are even fewer written by actual Mexicans. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fascinating book simply for that reason. But what I love most about it is the myth-making that Moreno-Garcia engages in. This is a new story using characters from Mayan mythology, and one that changes the nature of the Mayan gods. It looks very much like neo-paganism in action. I’d love to know whether the author saw it that way.