A Scattering of Jades
Picture the movie set of Gangs of New York – Manhattan, 1843. Add the chacmool, a feather-clad reincarnation of a bloodthirsty Aztec god, stalking the streets seeking human sacrifices. Switch back and forth between New York and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, burial site of the ancient god Tlaloc, who will rule the world if the proper virginal sacrifice is made. These are the main threads of Irvine’s complex tale.
Chief human characters include sinister itinerant puppeteer Riley Steen; grotesquely marked street urchin Jane Prescott; Jane’s father Archie, who once believed her killed in a tenement fire; and Stephen Bishop, mystical guide to Mammoth Cave, who is enslaved by the cave owner. Archie’s cross-country odyssey to the cave in search of his missing daughter ties together the real and magical worlds, both littered with scenes of gruesome violence.
Classified as a “magic historical,” Jades maintains a strong pace, pulling the reader along with action and suspense so that early Mesoamerican myths and ritual beliefs blend into a well-researched 1840s America with a surprising degree of credibility. The scenes in the depths of Mammoth Cave are especially gripping. For my taste, the suspension of disbelief is strained by too many amazing coincidences attributed to magical manipulation of the human characters by various gods, undead half-humans, and assorted spirits. A glossary for the many Aztec words and a historical note would have helped. But Irvine’s skillful writing and the fascination of exotic ancient beliefs make this an exceptional first novel.