Published by Harlequin Teen on October 2, 2018
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Format: ARC, eBook
One thousand years ago, the great Kami Dragon was summoned to grant a single terrible wish—and the land of Iwagoto was plunged into an age of darkness and chaos.
Now, for whoever holds the Scroll of a Thousand Prayers, a new wish will be granted. A new age is about to dawn.
Raised by monks in the isolated Silent Winds temple, Yumeko has trained all her life to hide her yokai nature. Half kitsune, half human, her skill with illusion is matched only by her penchant for mischief. Until the day her home is burned to the ground, her adoptive family is brutally slain and she is forced to flee for her life with the temple’s greatest treasure—one part of the ancient scroll.
With an army of demons at her heels and the unlikeliest of allies at her side, Yumeko’s secrets are more than a matter of life or death. They are the key to the fate of the world itself.
Shadow of the Fox has me at a loss for how to review it.
It’s received so much praise already – often from other reviewers who I really respect and whose book opinions or recommendations I usually agree with or find helpful – yet despite that, it largely fell flat for me. The prose and the dialogue, in particular, were the reading equivalent of listening to nails on a chalkboard.
What went wrong? Am I just an alien from another planet, operating on an entirely different wavelength from both Julie Kagawa and all the reviewers who loved Shadow of the Fox? Am I just a ship passing in the night, completely missing this hype…ship? Am I disappointed by this book because I had unrealistic or misguided expectations for it? Can I even hope to pick apart my complicated feelings of disappointment and ambivalence about this book?
Additionally, one question which I feel is important for me, as a white person, to ask myself is this: if I dislike an ownvoices work of literature, is it my own internal biases, learned patterns of racism, and/or a lack of similar lived experiences or background knowledge which lead me to dislike the book? Am I harming initiatives to increase diversity in literature by not liking this book? I searched around for some ownvoices reviews of this novel and couldn’t find any at the time of writing, so let me know if there are reviews I should link here, or if you’re an ownvoices reader yourself.
I’ll put my best effort toward examining all of this honestly, for whatever that’s worth. I’ll start things off positively by listing some things I liked.
- The fact that while a budding romance is obvious between the two central characters, Yumeko and Tatsumi, it does not take center stage. This is far more an adventure story than a pure romance fantasy (though there’s nothing wrong with those), and it would have felt out of place for their relationship to entirely subsume everything else. This romance seems like it’ll shape up to be a nice slow-burn. (I love a good slow-burn.)
- The squad that seems to be gathering around Yumeko. It actually reminds me a lot of how the main group in Inuyasha came together, and from my own point of view, it seems like that was the authorial intention. I liked seeing all the squad’s personalities play off each other.
- The settings were vividly portrayed. The pastoral nature imagery, in particular, was well-done and written with a nice balance between simplicity and flowery descriptions.
- The incorporation of many unique and memorable creatures from Japanese mythology; it has some truly grotesque and fantastical demons, ghosts, and so on which I recommend reading about if you’re unfamiliar with them.
- The opening lines and scenes. It was truly a great book- and series-opener, and instantly drew me into the setting (though I was initially confused to be reading about a human girl, Suki, rather than a monk-raised kitsune named Yumeko).
- I was interested enough in the plot at the end to not completely write off reading future books at the series, despite all the stuff I perceived as flaws in this one.
Now time for me to discuss what didn’t work for me, at least not completely.
- Yumeko: I liked her well enough and enjoyed her unflappable optimism. Sometimes it can be a breath of fresh air to read from the point of view of a genuinely sweet, funny, and hopeful protagonist. I did feel she was a bit one-note but I would bet money on her having a nice character arc over the course of the series as a whole. She had some moments where she missed the obvious to the degree that it was almost painful, but I also have a soft spot for the naive-cloistered-protagonist setup, so it didn’t ultimately bother me too much.
- Tatsumi, by contrast, actively frustrated me. I had a lot of sympathy for him – I don’t completely lack a heart – but I also never felt fully invested in his character. He also, for being an incredible sneaky shinobi, is maybe the most oblivious character in the book. I was waiting for him to have a moment in which he discovers a thing, and it felt like he never bothered to really check on that (spoilery) thing or investigate it because it was more narratively convenient for him to not do so.
- Suki, poor Suki. The plot of the novel definitely did her dirty, because she really did feel entirely like the mere shade of a character. It was probably intentional, and I’m also probably being nit-picky, but I was hoping for more from her.
- The rest of the squad: I felt like there wasn’t quite enough time to really get to know everyone else, especially Daisuke and Reiko. They seemed engaging in the way recognizable anime archetypes can be used to build interesting but familiar first impressions of a character roster. (I don’t count that as a bad thing – there are tropes in literally any work of fiction – I just hope they get developed more fully in the future.)
The dialogue & narration
Now to address what bothered me the most about this novel: its writing style, especially for dialogue and action narration.
Reading this book was like experiencing the “JUST ACCORDING TO KEIKAKU [translator’s note: KEIKAKU means PLAN]” meme over and over and over again, until it felt like a comically-oversized mallet was hitting me over the head. Randomly inserting a “nani” in place of “what,” “hai” instead of “yes,” or “ano” instead of “um” made the dialogue so awkward to read.
Like, c’mon. There were instances of phrasing like “a kama sickle.” Kama means sickle, so…a sickle sickle? And at one point, a character literally yells out that others are “bakas.” Why. Oh my god. I genuinely hope the final published version has some of these edited out. Maybe this was simply the type of writing I don’t enjoy. Am I just too picky??? I don’t know, y’all. I do think English-speaking otaku will be totally fine with the dialogue or even prefer it like this, though.
Even with me being annoyed by the writing, I would much prefer a Japanese or Japanese-American person writing a fantasy inspired by Japan and writing it this way than a white author going buck wild with ~~inspiration~~ from Japanese culture/mythology and doing a shitty, offensively-appropriated job of it. That’s already been done way too fucking much.
This book reminded me of shounen anime and manga like Inuyasha in good and bad ways. The good – that it was filled with action scenes and snappy character dynamics. The bad – the feeling that much of the plot was filler.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with extra scenes for character development here and there, but this novel truly felt episodic in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in a novel before. It read like a compilation volume of a manga with separate, individually-published stories contained within it. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.
I think if readers go into Shadow of the Fox expecting an anime-style adventure geared toward tweens and younger teens with elements of Japanese mythology, they will likely have a good time. In thinking about this book for several days after finishing it and in the process of writing this review, I mostly just feel like this was a case of misguided expectations on my part. I blame myself for not enjoying it more. As I put it in one of my goodreads updates for this book, I haven’t felt so bad for not loving a book in a while – I really thought this would be a new favorite for me.
Despite my own misgivings, I definitely think that this will be a fun and engaging read for many, and I encourage you to check it out if the premise of it interests you. I think this will be an excellent read for a large number of people, and it might be extra exciting for young Japanese-American teens in particular. Also, it’s got a gorgeous cover, and I have high hopes that the series will improve with future installments of it.
So, yeah. Thanks for joining me for another episode of Mo Overthinks Things, and thanks as well for reading all the way to the end if you made it here.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Harlequin Teen for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes are taken from a pre-release copy and may be subject to change in the final published version.