I requested this one from NetGalley and was so excited when I was granted access. I love mythology, basically of any origin, but I have rarely (ever? …because after finishing I realized that the only parts of this book that were even remotely familiar were things I remembered from The Road to El Dorado, which, while it is one of my favorite animated films and has a phenomenal soundtrack, definitely does not count as an authority) read anything fictional based on Mayan myths and belief systems. Suffice it to say, that I was really exited to pick this one up.
“Words are seeds, Casiopea. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth. Yes, the things you name have power.”
Casiopea Tun is living a Cinderella-type life on her grandfather’s estate in rural Mexico, spending each day doing chores around the house and taking orders from her cousin Martín, while dreaming of the possibilities of a life far away, in Mexico City, enjoying the wonders of the Jazz Age. One day, she discovers an ancient wooden box in her grandfather’s room and, daring to open it, frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death (Hun-Kame). Trapped in the box for years, Hun-Kame requests Casiopea’s assistance in getting revenge on his brother, who had treacherously imprisoned him in the box with her grandfather’s help. Casiopea agrees. And thus she and Hun-Kame set off on a journey through the jungles of the Yucatán, some of Mexico’s most dazzling cities, and the dark, dangerous roads of Xibalba.
The first thing I have to say, and I really hate to say this, is that I was a bit disappointed by this book. I wanted so badly to love it, but it just fell short for me. Here’s the thing, and it’s important because my biggest issue with this book is one that *could* be because it was an early copy: I was put off by the writing itself. It felt choppy and, especially at the beginning, quite poorly paced. I struggled to get into the story to start because it felt very convenient and contrived. Casiopea’s “bad luck” and “need to get out of her village” are all very common tropes in fantasy, and so I understand their presence, but since it all was introduced so quickly, with considerably more telling than showing, the entire premise felt thin…which is just a tough way to start. As the story went on, this issue smoothed out slightly, and the choppy tone took on more of a “fairy tale” type vibe, which mostly worked, even though it never quite fully clicked and we were slow to get there. Basically, I am hoping that the final published version got some feedback and edits for flow and that some of those early chapters were smoothed out and given a little more time to develop.
On the other hand, I deeply and truly enjoyed reading and learning about all the culture, tradition and Mayan mythology and Mexican folklore that was included in every part of this novel. It was not just woven in, but rather created the meat of the tale. On almost every page there was a new god, belief, tradition, myth or spirit to learn about and I loved it! Although at times I wish the author had taken the time to give more background on everything, that’s a personal thing. She explained what she needed to for the story…and it prompted me to go do some more research on my own for more information, which was some of the most fun google time I’ve ever had! Along the same lines, the 1920s ish culture in Mexico and the Yucatán was educational for me as well. I really enjoyed learning the vocabulary and traditions; they were so naturally included and set the scene and ambiance very well. It made me very glad I was reading it on my kindle though, because I had to look up a number of words (mostly food/crop and nature-based items). While not everyone may like being dropped into a foreign setting like this, with an assumption from the author than you know what she’s talking about, I enjoy that. It makes for a much more authentic reading experience and I feel strongly positive about the way it puts the onus on the reader to learn outside their knowledge-base and not on the author to explain their own history to anyone who doesn’t know it (which is a “majority” assumption that should absolutely be gotten rid of, especially since there are now so many easy ways to access information).
One other thing I want to note, before wrapping up. I was not super sold on Casiopea’s relationship with Hun-Kame… It was fairly realistic that, sheltered and emotionally mistreated as she had been, even his rude “caring” might be seen as gentlemanly, but, for those same reasons, it rankled a bit to read it. However, despite my feelings throughout the novel, the way their relationship ends was exactly what I wanted from this book. It’s not always what I hope for, but it was in this case. In other news, I am all about some future Casiopea-and-Loray shenanigans.
All in all, I’m struggling with how to rate/recommend this book. I learned so much, truly loved what I learned, and have never read anything with this setting or atmosphere before, so from that perspective, I want to tell you to read it. However, as I have mentioned, I felt like it could have been written and developed in a much better way. In the end, it’s probably a toss-up that comes down to what is more important to you as a reader: what you experience or the way you experience it. And, in the end, I can say that I do not, at all, regret the time I spent reading this, so that’s worth taking into consideration as well.
(If you’ve read this, at all and especially the final published version that just came out, I would really love to know how you felt about it – please leave a comment and let me know!)