These Mexican Vampires Lack Fangs: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, overhyped as she is in SFF circles, is rather hit or miss for me. Her YA novel Gods of Jade and Shadow was nice enough, but overly simplistic compared to the way it was sold (which may be more marketing’s fault than the author’s) and then Mexican Gothic was so much fun and a really great horror novel that had a lot more to say than just “oh look, creepy house”. Maybe I just like Moreno-Garcia’s newer books more than her backlist because while this vampire novel of hers was perfectly alright, I didn’t find anything special about it whatsoever.

CERTAIN DARK THINGS
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: Tor Nightfire, 2016
eBook:
352 pages
Audiobook:
8 hours 46 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Collecting garbage sharpens the senses.

Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?

Oh what a cool book this could have been if the many cool ideas it contains had been spun a little further, if there had been a little more plot and substance, a little more depth to the characters. The way it stands, this is a vampire novel that stands out only through its use of mythology and the Latinx cast of characters.

Atl is a vampire, belonging to one of several vampire sub-species/tribes, and she is on the run from the evil vampires (from a different tribe) who killed her family. In Mexico City, which is supposed to be vampire-free as opposed to the rest of the country and maybe even the world, she meets Domingo, a teenage boy who lives on the streets and makes a little money collecting garbage and doing odd jobs here or there. As Domingo loves to read comic books about vampires, he becomes obsessedw ith Atl, the first real one he’s met, and wants to become her servant/errand boy/lover/friend.

Meanwhile, we follow Nick Godoy, son of the vampire who had Atl’s family killed. He is a villain who’s easy to hate because he’s just evil. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn a lot about him as a person, or about his past. All we know is he hates Atl and wants to capture and torture her. Because he that’s his idea of fun. Not a very well-written villain, as stories go, but at least you don’t have to examine the blurry lines between good and evil while reading this book.
Lastly, there are a few human characters in addition to Domingo whose perspective made this book a lot more interesting. Ana Aguirre is a cop who has fought her fair share of vampires in her day. Rodrigo, on the other hand, works tighly with Nick and is more familiar with the criminal underbelly of Mexico City. Not only do these two provide some much-needed fleshing out of the world, but it was almost refreshing to follow a character who doesen’t revere vampires but rather fears them.

I was entertained enough while reading this book but in almost every single chapter, there were instances where I thought to myself “This has so much potential! Why not do something with it?”. First of all, the setting of Mexico City. I have never been there so I would have appreciated at least some description of the characters’ surroundings. And even if I grant you that this book wasn’t written for me specifically, and you don’t have to describe every tree or building that your characters pass in the story, there’s no argument against creating atmosphere. Which was sadly lacking here.

The world building is very basic and by that I don’t just mean the actual physical world our characters inhabit. The interesting aspect of this vampire novel is that it doesn’t offer the same old tired tropes we know from all those European vampire stories we know. Atl isn’t plae, she has no problem going out into the sun, and she doesn’t have fangs. But Atl’s type of vampire isn’t the only one! While we get glimpses or one-liners about what others there are, I would have loved to eplore them more and to see this bit of world bulding incorporated into the actual story, rather than just be exposition. The world didn’t feel lived-in or real, is what it comes down to.

The characters are similarly pale with the protagonist Domingo remaining one-dimensional throughout the entire book. Domingo isn’t even a person except in his relation to Atl, the vampire he meets and gets immediately obsessed with, only to immediately fall in eternal love with her. All he wants is be near her, help her, kiss her. Any agency he does have comes from his want to serve Atl. The only thing that makes him endearing is his naivete and his unquenchable optimism. So brownie points for that.
Atl has a backstory, of which we learn a little, but you guessed it, I would have liked a bit more.

This isn’t a big book at 350 pages and I don’t often say this but an extra 100 pages really would have done it a world of good. Then again, the beginning of the book was almost only exposition, mostly Atl explaining the world of vampires to Domingo, and the plot itself is super thin as it is. Girl comes to town, finds herself a willing little helper, girl wants to leave town. She meets with a few people, there is one confrontation, decisions are made. The end.

I still think Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a writer to watch,but I am also becoming more and more convinced that her earlier books weren’t quite ready yet. Or, to say it differently, if she wrote a book about Mexican vampires now, after having written something as fantastic as Mexican Gothic, it would be a much stronger book. I still want to read some of her backlist, but for the next book I’ll choose her latest, Velvet was the Night.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but  Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noemí’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books. Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read. Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. 🙂

A Haunted House Story Done Right: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve only read one book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia before and while I found it sweet and nice, it definitely wasn’t what the hype had made me expect. I found the tone to be much more YA than adult fantasy (although I am fairly alone in this opinion) and so I approached her newest novel with some trepidation. The hype is massive yet again, so I was all the more worried that me reading this book would lead to disappointment. Spoiler: No need to worry because this was GREAT!

53152636. sx318 sy475 MEXICAN GOTHIC
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The parties at the Tuñons’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .
From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes a novel set in glamorous 1950s Mexico.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

The first thing I noticed about this book, and the first thing that made me fall in love with it, was the narrative tone and the protagonist. Set in 1950 in Mexico, we follow young socialite Noemí Taboada as she is leaving a fancy dress party and charms her date with her wit and flirtiness. I immediately adored her! The writing made me think of Jane Austen for some reason, but with less overdrawn characters and, of course, a completely different time and cultural setting. So this book was off to a fantastic start, and that’s despite my unintentional but existing prejudice because of all the hype.

As the synopsis promises, Noemí receives a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, asking for help. Although she isn’t happy about leaving her carefree life and missing social gatherings, Noemí packs her bags and goes to High Place, where her cousin lives with her husband Virgil and his family. Immediately after arriving, Noemí knows something isn’t right. It’s not just that the entire family are cold and unfriendly, the house in disrepair, and the rules ridiculous. Catalina herself appears to be ill, but it’s not simply a cold. Her mind seems confused, she’s hearing voices, and the Doyle family won’t let Noemí visit her much.

I won’t go into the details of the weird things that happen in High Place, Noemí’s strange dreams, or the rumors she hears about the Doyle family. This is a haunted house story that may or may not include supernatural elements, and it does exactly what it should. It builds up this atmosphere of unease, it makes you look for clues to what’s going on, it makes you live alongside Noemí and question everything and everyone. I loved how the house and its inhabitants are described, how local legends and rumors and stories get woven into Noemí’s experience in High Place, and how strange everyone is behaving. Noemí’s only potential ally is Francis, the quiet, pale young man who at least talks to her like a normal person.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling anything. I will say that one aspect of the mystery was quite obvious to me but the bigger secrets, while hinted at, weren’t so easily guessed. I had my suspicions the entire time but then Moreno-Garcia adds a little twist and all my ideas suddenly don’t make sense anymore. I don’t know about you guys but I love it when I think I’ve got something figured out that then turns out to be wrong. Not every author has the ability to achieve that, to mislead their readers in such a way that the twists at the end still feel satisfying. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia hit the mark. She gave us just enough clues to figure some things out for ourselves, while surprising us with the whole terrifying story at the end.

Other reviews have mentioned that this book is rather slow but I have to disagree. Sure, the setting is rather narrow – mostly Noemí stays at High Place with occasional visits to the local village – but there’s always something happening. Whether it’s Noemí’s terrible nightmares, the utterly strange behaviour of the Doyle family and their servants, or her brief talks with Catalina, I never felt bored for one second. Unlike what I’d heard about this book before, it’s definitely not just dinner conversations and descriptions of the house, if only for the reason that the Doyle family spends dinner in silence. Like I said, they are weird…

The one thing that can make or break a horror story for me is the protagonist. I don’t just mean that I want to like them, but I absolutely need the protagonist to be Not Stupid. And Noemí was more than that. She is clever and cautious when she needs to be, without turning into a Mary Sue. In fact, she is well aware of her own character flaws, and that makes her even more likable. But most importantly, she knows what kind of story she has stumbled into but she reacts like most people would. She kind of thinks she’s in a haunted house but she also doesn’t believe in ghosts and keeps searching for a scientific reason behind what’s going on. Whenever she uncovers something new, she collects her thoughts first, she tries to formulate a plan. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed her as a character and especially as the heroine in this gothic tale.

While it’s not the main focus of the book, I also enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia managed to weave a bit of history in the story. The Doyle family came to Mexico from England where they bought a silver mine and exploited many workers for their own financial gain. Howard Doyle, the ancient patriarch of the family, also has a thing for eugenics and doesn’t miss a chance to let Noemí know just what he thinks about classifying people into good and bad, based on their appearance or bloodline. You can imagine that it was pretty easy to despise the man but this topic wasn’t just thrown into the story to make clear that Howard is a despicable human being. It’s all part of the bigger tale.

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was Noemí’s relationship with Francis. It doesn’t take long for the reader – or Noemí, for that matter – to realize that Francis is rather taken with her. But Noemí usually flirts with attractive men, men who can keep up with her wit, who know how to flirt and be charming. Francis is none of that and yet, the two form a sort of friendship that gave me all the warm feelings I could want. This relationship was also a chance for Noemí to grow as a person, to not pick her friends or suitors by appearance or superficial charm only, but by deeper values.

At the end, things come together beautifully. Well, if you can call it beautiful when talking about a horror novel that describes some truly disturbing things. But you know what I mean. All the elements fall into place to paint a larger picture that makes perfect sense. The clues were there all along, you just have to piece them together in the right way. And for anyone who feels that this book is a bit slow, you can expect a lot to happen at the end! When I was reading the last few chapters, my boyfriend suddenly asked “is the book exciting?” because, apparently, I had that look on my face. Utter concentration mixed with shock mixed with disgust – so the ending was really, really good! 🙂

I’m so glad that the hype hasn’t ruined this book for me. In fact, I’m jumping on the hype train and looking forward to all the other books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I have on my TBR. Her range already impresses me after having read only two of her novels. If she can jump from genre to genre like this, then I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

A Charming Middle-Grade Fairy Tale: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

October has been kind of a reading slump-y month for me and I’ve come to realize why. Because expectations are a bitch! Whether it’s a book hype on Twitter and Goodreads or simply misleading marketing by the publisher, once I’ve formed certain expectations and they aren’t met – even if the book is otherwise fine – it puts me off reading a book. While this book wasn’t a disappointment the way Gideon the Ninth was, it still was so completely different from what the cover, synopsis, and general buzz about it made me expect that it took me a while to get into it.

GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets.

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, 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.

Jazz Age, Mexico, Mayan gods! These are only three things that made me excited for this book. I had also heard nothing but great things about the author herself and I love mythology retellings, especially when they are written for adults (like Circe or The Golem and the Jinni). But this was also my first mistake. Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – did I see any mentions that this was a YA book or, how I would categorize it, a middle-grade one. The cover doesn’t look particularly like YA, it is shelved as “Adult” on Goodreads, and none of the reviews I’d read made me expect anything but an adult mythology retelling with a teenaged protagonist.

So the writing style was the first thing that threw me. Casiopea Tun lives a Cinderella-like life in her grandfather’s house, where she cleans, cooks, fetches things for her insufferable, arrogant douche of a cousin Martín, and can only dream of the wider world. Until, that is, she opens a chest which contains some bones. These bones happen to belong to the Mayan god of the Underworld, Hun-Kamé who has been imprisoned by his jealous brother who now sits on the throne of Xibalba. Because Casiopea freed Hun-Kamé and also got a piece of bone stuck in her thumb, these two are now connected and she has to go with him on a quest to retrieve his missing pieces that will restore him to full power. Adventure ensues.

The plot is pretty straight-forward, nothing unexpected happens, and the whole book reads more like a fable or (and that’s a plus, in my book) a fairy tale than anything else. The writing is quick and to the point, there is a lot of telling instead of showing, the plot moves fast and felt almost episodic. Each chapter is a new city, a new piece of Hun-Kamé to retrieve, a new enemy to defeat or mythological creature to meet. None of these adventures were bad. I enjoyed most of them a lot, to be honest, but at the same time it all felt so incredibly simple, so child-like. Even the romance, which I found sweet and subtle, was fitting for 12-year-old readers. The only reason this bothered me so much was because that’s not at all what the book promised! Had I known from the start what kind of novel I was picking up, I would have probably loved it from the start. But since I had to adjust my expectations, I only started really liking this after the first third.

Another disappointment were the setting and the time period. The setting lived mostly through its mythology and I loved learning about Xibalba, various mythical creatures and Mayan rituals. But Mexico didn’t really come to life for me. The Roaring Twenties aspect was represented even less. Sure, most chapters begin with a short introduction of the place Casiopea and Hun-Kamé are visiting, but mentioning bobbed hair and fast dances here and there does not make any of this come to life. This didn’t make the reading experience less pleasurable, but it also did nothing to enhance what was already a very simplistic story. There was so much potential for depth, for turning this fast-paced children’s book into what it was sold as. But apart from the fact that Mayan gods are characters, this story could have happened anywhere and during any number of time periods.

Now that I’ve got the gripes out of the way, let me tell you why this book is worth your while anyway! First of all, you, faithful readers, are aware of what you’re going to get yourselves into. Don’t pick this up if you want something like The Song of Achilles, pick it up if you feel like a light-hearted fantasy read with interesting mythology. Because what you’ll get is actually a really sweet tale of a young girl breaking out of her sad life, finding confidence, falling in love for the first time, and growing up a bit. Casiopea may be the protagonist but – just like in a lot of children’s books – she is almost a little bland. Although we’re told how feisty and headstrong she is, mostly she’s just a really good person who happens to be a teenager and thus wants things, such as freedom and pretty dresses and to be kissed by a boy. I liked her enormously, but from a storytelling persepective, I found Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s jerk cousin Martín even more interesting. Martín is the kind of spoiled brat who believes himself a gift to whomever may walk in his presence and I loathed him with a passion. But then he gets his own point of view chapters and you realize there is more to him than meets the eye. Not much more, mind you, but more nonetheless.

Hun-Kamé, that dark, mysterious god was the perfect romantic interest for a YA novel. Kind of brooding, super sexy, protective of the heroine… but being a god who’s missing some of his pieces, and thus some of his power, he’s also going through an interesting development. As a piece of his bone is stuck in Casiopea’s finger, her humanity is swapping over to Hun-Kamé just as she gets some of his godly powers. I felt that Hun-Kamés slow turn from godly aloofness to an almost human young man was fantastically done. Just like the romance, the changes happen gradually. It is subtle at first and becomes more and more obvious as the story progresses. Because I hate insta-love and enjoy character-focused stories, I really liked that part of the narrative.

In the reviews I’ve since read of this book, some readers were disappointed in the ending but I really liked it. Much like the plot that came before, I didn’t really find it surprising but even in its predictability, it had a lot of charm. Casiopea’s story felt well-rounded, she had grown as a person, seen more of the world, experienced romantic feelings – oh yeah, and also fought terrifying creatures, helped the god of the Underworld, and seen places others can only dream of. Although this book absolutely isn’t what it appears to be, it is a lovely kids’ adventure story with Mayan mythology.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good