Shadow of the Fox

Shadow of the Fox was written by Julie Kagawa and first published in 2018. It is a fantasy novel based around Japanese mythology, which focuses on a half-yōkai and assassin who team up to find a legendary artefact. The novel forms the first part of a planned trilogy and its sequel, provisionally titled Soul of the Sword, is expected to be released next year.

Yumeko knows nothing about the world that lies outside of the Silent Winds temple. As a half-kitsune (fox spirit), she knows that she is lucky to have found a home with the monks. Although she suffers from an insatiable urge to use her magic to play tricks on people, the monks at least tolerate her behaviour. In the outside world, most people would never trust someone with yōkai blood.

Yet, when her adoptive family is slain by demons, Yumeko has no choice but to leave her home. The head monk entrusts her with the greatest secret of the temple – a fragment of an ancient scroll. Legends say that if a person obtains all three pieces, they will be able to summon a powerful dragon and ask it for one wish. Knowing that this is what the demons seek, Yumeko sets off on a dangerous mission to locate the rest of the scroll. But she is not alone.

Tatsumi is the Kage demonslayer – a shinobi who is fated wield the cursed sword Kamigoroshi. The head of his clan also has her eyes on the scroll and has ordered him to retrieve the fragment from the Silent Winds temple at any cost. However, Yumeko is quick to use this to her advantage. Pretending that she does not know where the scroll is, she tells Tatsumi that she can take him to the place where it is kept. Tatsumi has no choice to join her on her journey as her bodyguard, but Yumeko knows that she is playing with fire. What will happen if Tatsumi discovers that she is one of the monsters that he has been trained to hunt? Or, worse still, what will he do if he finds out that the scroll fragment is in her possession…

This is a hard review for me to write because I was really looking forward to reading this novel. I have previously read and reviewed all of Kagawa’s Talon Saga and, although my opinions on this were a bit conflicted, I am an absolute sucker for Japanese folklore. Let me begin this review by noting that I certainly did not hate this book. However, it also was not without its share of problems.

Let’s start by talking about the things that I did enjoy. Japanese mythology is not a common inspiration for young adult novels and Shadow of the Fox did completely embrace this. The Empire of Iwagoto is a refreshingly original world, divided into fiefdoms ruled by rival clans. It is a world where honour is everything, samurai lord over peasants and the wilds are filled with all manner of different spirits, ghosts and demons. While this may at first seem a little daunting to a reader, especially as Kagawa does not shy away from using correct terminology, the novel does contain a handy glossary that helps to explain different Japanese words and concepts. I guarantee that it will not be long before you start to know your yōkai from your yurei.

Yet behind this beautiful setting lay an incredibly generic novel. At its core, Shadow of the Fox tells a story that fans of fantasy novels will find all too familiar. A sheltered teenage girl and a brooding warrior are forced to team up to gather three magical McGuffins. Naturally, these McGuffins are also sought by a faceless evil who will threaten the world if s/he gets hold of them first. Sound familiar? Yeah, this has formed the plot of so many different books, films and anime over the last decade.

To make matters worse, Shadow of the Fox had a terrible habit of ignoring its own plot. Over the course of Yumeko and Tatsumi’s adventure, they are frequently side-tracked by mini-quests. Although these often formed the most exciting parts of the story, such when Tatsumi was forced to battle an immense demon bear, they really only served to pad out the novel to over 450 pages. This really detracted from the urgency of Yumeko’s true mission.

However, despite this padding, I never got bored. The chapters largely alternated between the first-person perspectives of Yumeko and Tatsumi and, although this did mean that some information was repeated, the two did have distinct voices that addressed their individual concerns. Yet the chapters told in third person felt a bit clumsier. These were all from the perspective of a ghost who was trapped in the castle of Lady Satomi – the primary villain. As Satomi does not encounter the protagonists until the climax, these purely served to remind the reader that she existed. This in turn only made her feel even more disconnected from the plot than she already was.

The climax of the novel also felt a little rushed. After a lot of build-up, the final battle was over in only thirty pages. It also ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger, breaking off just before the history of the Kage clan was revealed and only granting Yumeko a pyrrhic victory in this stage of her quest. As I have explained many times before, I get really frustrated by cliff-hangers of this kind. This is a personal thing, I know, but I like stories to have some measure of closure. Shadow of the Fox just felt unfinished.

However, it was in the novel’s characters where it really shone. While I was disappointed by the lack of female protagonists, I did get rather attached to Yumeko. While her naivety sometimes set my teeth on edge (particularly her inability to grasp sarcasm), she was a lovable character and the obvious strengths and weaknesses of her Kitsune powers made her feel very balanced.

I also grew to like Tatsumi, although he was a bit of a typical brooding love interest. His constant internal war against Hakaimono – the demon imprisoned in his sword – was dramatic and did add a lot of tension to the story. While he did make a nice counterpart and love interest for the overly optimistic Yumeko, I couldn’t help but notice that they were very reminiscent of Ember and Garret from Kagawa’s Talon Saga. Once I realised this, I unfortunately could not unsee it.

The supporting characters were also all very likeable. Okame and Daisuke were both very colourful, and I am pretty sure that Okame in particular has some secrets that are yet to be revealed. I also liked the late addition of Reiko – a shrine meiko. I do hope that she features more in the sequel as I would like to get to know her better.

In fact, the only area where I felt that the characterisation was lacking was in the villains. While the monsters that Yumeko faced were memorable, the bad guys unfortunately were not. Lady Satomi barely featured in the story and did not seem to have much motivation for wanting the Dragon Scroll, and all of the demons that she controlled were just portrayed as being chaotic evil. As the true villain behind the scenes remains unseen, I can only hope that they make a bit more of an impression in the sequel.

So, all in all, I found Shadow of the Fox to be a bit of a mixed bag. While I loved the setting and the protagonists, the plot was bit generic and the villains were forgettable. I will certainly read the sequel, but I hope that it’s a little more unique.

Shadow of the Fox can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook & Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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