Silvia Moreno-Garcia on Mayan death gods and meteorites

Adrian Liang on July 23, 2019


Mayan mythology, glimpses of 1920s Mexico as it is swept into the Jazz Age, and a heroine determined to save her people from the wrong death god give Gods of Jade and Shadow a depth and heft that almost makes you feel like you’re reading a trilogy. But this book will be the only one.

“I don’t like to write the same genre or the same story over and over again,” said Silvia Moreno-Garcia when she stopped by our Seattle office earlier this year. “I can think of nothing more dreadful than doing a series, I’ll be honest.”

Moreno-Garcia’s interests range widely, as can be seen in her previous novels. Prime Meridian features a young woman who dreams of going to Mars; The Beautiful Ones is a fantastical novel of manners set in a belle époque-like world; vampires, cops, and street kids populate Certain Dark Things; and Signal to Noise speculates on the connection between music and magic.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is, again, completely different from what Moreno-Garcia has written before.

In the novel, Casiopea Tun—a young woman treated like a servant by her grandfather and her awful cousin, Martín—opens the forbidden chest in her grandfather’s bedroom. The chest contains nothing but old bones, and as Casiopea feels around to make sure no money is hidden beneath them, a shard of bone lodges in her finger. Animated by her accidental blood offering, a skeleton leaps out and assembles itself into Hun-Kamé, the Lord of Shadows and god of death. Hun-Kamé insists that he and Casiopea, to whom he is now bound, go to Mexico City to stop his power-hungry brother from demanding unending blood tribute from Mexico and the world.

Fascinatingly, Moreno-Garcia ties the meteorite that crashed into the Yucatan 65 million years ago with the still-active power of the gods of the region, including Hun-Kamé and his brother Vacum-Kamé. “The topography of the Yucatan is just very different from land anywhere else that I have ever seen because of that meteorite impact,” she said. “I was thinking about why gods [would be] there and maybe not in other places…. Maybe that that kind of force reverberates not only in the sense of cracking the ground but in creating power that lasts for a really long time.”

Moreno-Garcia was also inspired by her family. “My great-grandmother couldn’t read or write—she was a maid, and so she was illiterate—but she told me stories every night … about growing up. And she mixed fantastic elements into the story…. I couldn’t tell what was fake and what was real.” Her grandmother also inspired the setting of the 1920s. “My great-grandmother was young in the 1920s, and I started thinking about her and about writing something where she could be the hero.”

The 1920s were a time of huge change in Mexico on both political and personal levels. The Mexican Revolution established a constitutional republic after years of dictatorship, while society began to import notions from the United States, such as the Jazz Age and short haircuts for women. Against this backdrop of already titanic changes, Casiopea Tun has to navigate a second, hidden world of gods, demons, trickery, and world-ending blood rituals.

The Mayan gods were not benevolent ones, which could be one reason for Moreno-Garcia’s attraction to writing a story about them. Growing up in Mexico, she said, she didn’t have children’s books like The Cat in the Hat, so she grew up on her great-grandmother’s stories, the Brothers Grimm, and Greek and Roman mythology. The tales she learned “were very violent and very gritty and people would be turned into stones or flowers or things like that. People would be murdered. Sometimes children would be murdered. When you’re seven, that’s just exciting.” Years later, after also reading Hemingway and Lovecraft, she transferred to a school with a library that contained English-language books such as The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. “I found them so dull because nobody’s head was getting chopped off, and people were not being boarded up in a room and told to stay there for the rest of their lives as a punishment. I read one two of those, and then I was like, ‘This is just not fun at all.’”

But Gods of Jade and Shadow isn’t a gore-fest. The dark aspects lie in the Mayan gods’ thirst for domination, as well as the actions of humans who also must see themselves as all-powerful. Casiopea’s slightly older cousin, Martín, treats Casiopea like a servant and cannot live happily in a world in which she is just as strong as he is.

Moreno-Garcia has a soft spot for Martín and even Hun-Kamé’s bloodthirsty brother. “I like complicated characters, even when they are bad. I like exploring the way they think…. Martín is certainly not a very nice person, but I think by being able to see his point of view, you can understand in a way why he is the way he is and how he is shaped not only by his own nature but also by society and by his family and by these other forces that might have made him what he is.”

Still, the heart of Gods of Jade and Shadow is a heroic one. Both Hun-Kamé and Casiopea feel bound by the concept of patan, even when it goes against their own interests. Said Moreno-Garcia, “[Patan] is literally ‘tribute’ but in a more general sense means ‘responsibility.’…. Patan is not is not a bad thing. It is a weight we carry, but it also helps us define and shape our lives.”

When Casiopea and Hun-Kamé finally face Hun-Kamé’s brother, the challenge comes in a form that neither expects— or expects to defeat. Beyond that, we won't say much, except that Gods of Jade and Shadow delivers an ending that feels just right.

The Amazon Books editors chose Gods of Jade and Shadow as one of the best fantasy novels of the month. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Author photo by Martin Dee.

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