Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2019 Gods of Jade and Shadow is a standalone fantasy novel.
Bitter old Cirilo Layva is a very big frog in the extremely small pond of Uukumil. The Layvas are the family of consequence in the backwater Yucatan town. Cirilo’s worthless grandson Martin revels in his high status and does nothing to deserve it.
Eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun is less fortunate. She is a Layva, but her mother married against Cirilo’s wishes. Now Casiopea is poor, orphaned, grudgingly tolerated relative. She’s family enough to live on the family estate, but so low status that she is basically an unpaid servant.
Casiopea tolerates her circumstances because she has been told that Cirilo’s will gives her a bequest of one thousand pesos, which would be enough for to start a good life elsewhere. Cirilo dies and Martin gleefully informs her that the bequest was a lie. She will get nothing.
Casiopea decides to take matters into her own hands. She breaks into her grandfather’s locked chest, hoping to find something she can use or sell. No luck there. She does, however, find an imprisoned god.
The god is Hun-Kamé, Lord of Xibalba, the Mayan realm of death. He was struck down and hacked to pieces by his jealous twin Vucub-Kamé, and the pieces locked in a chest. His remains (most of them) have been trapped in the chest for half a century. When Casiopea opens the chest, a bone splinter pierces her hand. This somehow restores Hun-Kamé to life, if not to his full divine powers. He is still missing an ear, a finger, and an eye.
Determined to win back full godhood, Hun-Kamé sets out to find his missing parts. Casiopea accompanies the former god. This is by choice (no reason to stay in Uukumil any longer) but if she hadn’t so chosen, Hun-Kamé might have tried to compel her. The god depends on the sustenance he draws from her (via the embedded bone splinter). The link works both ways. Casiopea has gained some minor powers — she heals quickly and would be hard to kill with mundane weapons — but those powers have come with a large price tag. A mortal cannot power a god for very long. If Hun-Kamé is not restored to full godhood, he will drain her dry.
The murderous twin, Vucub-Kamé, has consigned the missing parts to various guardians. Hun-Kamé and Casiopea must defeat those guardians (sorcerers and demonesses) to regain the parts. That’s not all. Vucub-Kamé learns that his brother has escaped the chest. He will kill his brother and his human companion if he can. Hun-Kamé, without his full powers, will be doomed. His only hope: the all too mortal Casiopea.
Minor spoiler: there is a moment where it seems that loathsome Martin and oppressed Casiopea might set their differences aside and become friends. I was relieved when that did not happen. Martin mouths words of regret but does nothing to make good on them. Casiopea does not forgive, though she is willing to be neutral. I have read too many books wherein tepid male remorse results in full forgiveness and subsequent kissy face. (I am looking at you, The Snow Queen.) This is not one of those books.
One is tempted to compare this plot to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades: a maiden carried off by the god of the dead. [Editor’s note: but also Osiris and Isis.] But … Mayan gods do not love mortals and Hun-Kamé does not kidnap Casiopea. She decides to accompany him. Having dealt with the arrogant Layvas all her life, she cannot be intimidated, only persuaded.
Some fantasy tales offer their protagonists only one path out of their circumstances (which may be a passing prince). Casiopea is no such protagonist. As she says
I wasn’t a princess in a tower. I knew I’d get away one way or another, and I was not waiting for a god to liberate me. That would have been both silly and unlikely.”
It happens that her path out of Uukumil is alliance with a god, but that’s mere chance. If she’d never opened the chest, she still would have escaped the Layvas. The only difference is that Hun-Kamé would still be in that chest1.
As you might guess, I liked Casiopea. I also enjoyed the polished prose of this novel. Moreno-Garcia has published only four novels2 to date and all of them are worth reading3.
1: I don’t really follow Vucub-Kamé’s logic in entrusting his brother’s remains to a mortal guardian. Even if Casiopea had never opened the chest, that idiot Martin does not seem the sort to resist every bad idea that ends with an angry god of death standing naked in his bedroom.
2: Five if you count standalone novella Prime Meridian as a novel. It’s as long as novels used to be.…
3: As are the pair of Moreno-Garcia edited anthologies I’ve read. There are lots more for me to track down, not to mention two as yet unread collections.