Valentine’s Day Going. . . Going. . .
Here’s the 7th in my series of fairytale fantasy posts!
TO REPEAT from fairytale fantasy post #1: the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially those originating in the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books in this series of posts does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that sense. AND I’m not dealing with anything Disney (although I guess I kind of lied about that, because a few of the posts do mention Disney, including this one).
The fairytale fantasy novels
My top picks:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Reviewed in the first post of this series.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. Based on the Senegalese folk tale Ansige the Glutton. Reviewed in the second post of this series.
Other fairytale fantasy novels:
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Influenced by Chinese ghost lore. Reviewed in the third post of this series.
Alice, by Christina Henry. Horror-fantasy based on Alice in Wonderland. Reviewed in the fourth post of this series.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Based on the French fairy tale Cinderella. Reviewed in the fifth post of this series.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Influenced by Mesoamerican mythology and folklore. Reviewed in the sixth post of this series.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa. Influenced by Japanese folklore. REVIEWED IN THIS POST.
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten. Supposedly based on Little Red Riding Hood, but it seems to be based on Beauty and the Beast.
Today’s fairytale fantasy review:
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa
Shadow of the Fox, the first book in a YA fantasy series by Julie Kagawa, was published in 2018 by Harlequin Teen. It’s a briskly-told tale that draws on Japanese folklore–another novel in the trend away from the usual European-based fantasy fare of magic swords, knights, and castles. But wait! There IS a magic sword in this one, just not the kind you may be expecting. Not anything wielded by a watery tart in a pond! (I just finished re-watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, if you can tell. . .)
Folkloric basis of the novel:
This novel draws on all manner of fascinating Japanese folklore. The main character, sixteen-year-old Yumeko, is half-kitsune. Yumeko’s co-protagonist Tatsumi, the mysterious young man who joins her in her quest, is a shinobi, a shadow-ninja. The villains are an assortment of Japanese-inspired demons and ghosts and monsters, oh my! Not to mention a terrible blood-witch. Such a rich stew of yokai folklore! (yokai=mysterious denizens of the spirit world). For centuries these fantasy creatures have been a staple of Noh, kabuki, and bunraku drama, but they have entered the contemporary imagination with their thrill undiminished. By now, manga, anime, video games, and other Japanese conveyances for fantasy have become very popular in the West, too, so Kagawa’s fantasy population is not as obscure to her English-language readership as it once would have been. I’ll mention just the most prominent of Kagawa’s magical beings, the kitsune, a magical shape-shifting fox-creature. Here’s a handy list of kitsune-themed anime. And read all about kitsune on the invaluable TV Tropes website.
Shadow of the Fox is the engaging YA story of Yumeko, a young half-kitsune girl brought up in a temple by monks. The monks forbid her from practicing her magic, because if she does, she’ll become more and more enticed over to her fox-side, risking the danger of leaving her human side behind. But kitsune are trickster spirits, and Yumeko can’t resist playing magical pranks on the staid but well-meaning monks. Suddenly the pranks and fun are over. The monks’ temple is attacked by a powerful oni, a demon who–at the bidding of the novel’s main villain, the evil blood-witch Lady Satomi–wants to seize the temple’s fragment of an ancient and powerful scroll on behalf of her diabolical master, conspiring to seize control of the realm. Trying to get at the scroll fragment, the oni murders the entire temple-full of monks. At the last minute, the head monk entrusts the scroll-fragment to Yumeko, who escapes with it.
The rest of the book recounts her quest to get the scroll fragment to another temple, whereabouts unknown, in order for the monks there to protect it. Meanwhile, the shinobi Tatsumi, a shadow-ninja whose mission is to wield a demon-slaying sword with its own demon embedded in it (demons, demons, demons!), wants the scroll, too. He’s a member of the Shadow Clan, known for its underhanded ways, and he’s its sworn demon-slayer, trained by birth in magical powers and especially to show no emotion. In the service of the clan, he commits even the most violent acts. Thinking Yumeko can lead him to the scroll (and not realizing she actually has it concealed in her clothing), he agrees to help her find the unknown temple, and he convinces his superiors to go along with his agreement rather than simply killing her. During their journey together, Yumeko and Tatsumi start to bond, and they also pick up more and more companions and helpers–a nobleman who wants to duel Tatsumi to the death as a matter of honor, a wise-ass ronin, a shrine priestess with a magic dog, and a vengeful young ghost. This is a very exciting story with great world-building.
So. . .why isn’t it one of my favorites? Two things. First, there are three separate point-of-view characters, and it takes a while to sort them out. Two of them, Yumeko and Tatsumi, tell their sides of the story in first person, and sometimes, the shift from one to the other isn’t as clear as it might be. But a third character, Suki, whose point of view is communicated in third person, muddies things a bit. This character is the first one we encounter as we begin the novel, and then she utterly disappears, leaving me at least scratching my head. She reappears later, so then I start to get the picture: the entire quest-story is framed by her narrative. By the end of the novel, I had all the narrative voices figured it out. This confusion wasn’t a deal-breaker; it was me the reader needing to pay attention.
Okay, but the second problem. . . I hate to even bring this up, because in my last post I probably ranted about it to the point of tedium. Shadow of the Fox just stops, leaving its major plot developments totally undeveloped. That’s right: the dreaded cliffhanger. So, like the last book I reviewed, the implied contract with the reader goes something like this: You bought my book, but I’m not going to tell the story. I’m going to tell part of the story, and if you don’t buy the next installment, you won’t know how it ends. In the case of this novel, not until you buy the next two installments. Now, a story that bills itself up-front as a “to be continued” serial would be okay. I’d know that going in, and there are such books–on Kindle Vella, on Wattpad and Radish, and similar platforms. But the first book of a series? No. In my opinion, the best serials wrap up each book with at least a preliminary ending. Some kind of ending. They don’t just stop.
As I said in the last post, not every fantasy reader may feel, as I do, that this plays a dirty trick on the reader. I’ve done some soul-searching about this. When I watch an absorbing streaming series–Breaking Bad, for example–I’m on fire for the new season to begin so I can pick up where I left off. It may be that some writers and some publishers think they’re delivering the same kind of experience, so what’s the problem? I think the streaming series seasons have trained me the watcher to expect that I’ll be watching a serial. But publishers of fantasy series have not trained me to expect the same. For me, I suppose, hating cliffhanger endings in fantasy novels is a case of thwarted expectations.
We can probably all think of famous fantasy series that just stop. That’s not the same. That, to me, is a different problem. I’m thinking of George R. R. Martin, whose frustrated fans are still waiting for him to finish A Song of Ice and Fire. (Although the showrunners of the HBO series based on it just went ahead and made up their own ending–ironically, to the satisfaction of almost no one, especially all those mothers who named their little girl babies Daenerys.) Other examples: Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles and Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards. To the outraged howls of their many, many fans, these series have stalled out, and a lot of people think none of them will ever be finished. But take a look at Book I of Rothfuss’s series (please! If you haven’t, please read it!), The Name of the Wind. Sure, we’re only on Day One of the main character Kvothe’s three-day narration of the terrible events of his life and how they brought him to a near-suicidal moment. But the novel itself ends beautifully, poignantly. So does Book Two, The Wise Man’s Fear. It’s not as successful a novel, but it still ends in a very good place. I, like all of Rothfuss’s other fans, want that Book Three. But if all I get is the first two, I will still have read two amazing fantasy novels, each one with a beginning, middle, AND END of its own. The same goes for the Scott Lynch novels, which I love just as much and have much the same feelings about.
Okay, enough of that. Shadow of the Fox has a great beginning, especially after you get the idea of the third point of view character, and it has a really great, really exciting middle. It has no end. It sort of maybe has a stab at one, but the main plot is left unresolved. Be warned. (Or, if you’re the other kind of reader, I suppose, go ahead and buy the next two volumes. I won’t do that, because I feel myself disrespected as a reader. But hey, that’s just me.)
I’ve already mentioned manga and anime. I should also mention the astounding Studio Ghibli animated films. They are among the best. Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997), and many others abound in folkloric creatures similar to the ones in Kagawa’s novel. These films have a huge worldwide following and in the English-speaking world as well, thanks to versions dubbed by A-list English-language actors (all right, all right, I’ll mention it. . .in partnership with Disney).
And then. . .the creature features! Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan–these are all characters known to lovers of Japanese cinema as kaiju, strange gigantic beasts. They’re a subgenre all their own, with their own associated tropes and folkloric connections.
If you’re a film-lover, you’ll also be aware of the many serious Japanese movies with themes involving the spirit world. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), Throne of Blood (1957), and other widely celebrated films had an outsized influence on Hollywood. The lesser-known (in the West, anyway!) Kenji Mizoguchi made the wonderful fantasy ghost story Ugetsu in 1953. These are just the ones I’ve watched. I’m sure there are other directors and other films with these characteristics.
I need to mention another series of fantasy novels inspired by the Japanese feudal period: Lian Hearn’s superb Tales of the Otori series, beginning with Across the Nightingale Floor (2003). Those books, too, have their shadow-ninjas. Unlike Kagawa, Hearn (the pen name for the English writer Gillian Rubinstein, writing and publishing in Australia) is not of Japanese heritage, but she received a grant from Australia’s Asialink Foundation to study and do research in Japan. The result was this amazing series of novels. See this interview with her. Hearn’s books are some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.