THE FOX WIFE rating: 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.
The term “immersive” gets thrown around a lot, but I rarely get truly immersed in books. Yangsze Choo‘s fantasy novel THE FOX WIFE (Henry Holt/Macmillan, February 13, 2024) had me in its grip from page one. I was there in 1908 Manchuria. The novel is as stunning as its cover art. Not many authors could blend fantasy, mystery, and a hypnotic tale of revenge into 400 pages this seamlessly.
Snow, our immortal spirit and main character, has more superhuman powers than just being able to morph from fox to beautiful woman, and she is out for blood after someone kidnapped her cub from her den. Courtesans are also being found dead, and a detective named Bao is trying to find the murderer. When Snow and Bao cross paths, the result is an incredible tale. Another mystery: if Snow is a fox wife with no partner in sight, then who did she marry?
As a fox spirit, Snow is almost free of male power. She is vulnerable in only a few ways. One weakness is in being a mother whose cub is weak enough to be hurt. Snow also briefly loses her immortality and could be killed when she changes from one form to another. She has irresistible charisma and can bewitch humans into doing her bidding. Snow is not the only fox spirit in the novel, nor are these terrifying powers hers alone.
Reading in context:
Fox spirits haunt LADY TAN’S CIRCLE OF WOMEN by Lisa See (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, June 2023), in which a foot-bound woman in a traditional marriage during the Ming Dynasty is determined to follow her dreams of practicing traditional medicine and helping women with their ailments. If I had read this novel earlier it would have made my top 10 of 2023. It’s awesome.
Another not-to-miss character in historical fiction set in China is warrior Yzu in SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan (Macmillan, 2021), a Mulan-like character who steals her brother’s identity and first becomes a monk, then a soldier. SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is the first book in the Radiant Emperor Duology.
Yzu is frightened of practically nothing except fox spirits, and who would not be? They eat your life force. She1Despite rejecting the identity and gender role of “woman” she retains she/her pronouns. even imagines that fox spirits might lurk in ruins, under dark water.
Both Lady Tan and Yzu commit cruelties to obtain power beyond Chinese society’s dictates for women. They are rather ruthless, as is Snow in THE FOX WIFE.
Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston was a pioneer in feminist re-tellings (“talk story” in Chinese tradition2The Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association has more info about Talk Stories in various cultural traditions.) in 1976 when she wrote THE WOMAN WARRIOR (Penguin Random House), a book that defies categorization, as Hua Hsu pointed out in a 2020 article in the New Yorker. There is always another story to tell, and Kingston took issue with the story her family had canonized about her aunt, who drowned herself after bearing an illegitimate child (killing her infant as well) and was erased from the family, becoming a “No-Name Woman.” In giving her aunt a voice, Kingston found her own. Non-Chinese people are “ghosts,” but so are women who are “ghosted” by not living up to strict traditional rules for women.
What I’m reading right now:
BOOTSTRAPPED: LIBERATING OURSELVES FROM THE AMERICAN DREAM by Alissa Quart (HarperCollins, 2023).
CITY FOLK AND COUNTRY FOLK by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya,Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (Columbia University Press, 2017, originally published in Russia in 1863).