The Fox Wife
Yangsze Choo

NOTE: The book lists family names before personal names, and I have followed suit.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

OH MY GOD A NORMAL RELATIONSHIP WITH A MALE PARTNER WHO IS ACTUALLY REASONABLE. May the fates and fortunes smile on Yangsze Choo, I didn’t think this was possible after the shamefully toxic romance in The Night Tiger but some dreams do come true. And on that note, Shiro and Kuro are a pair of fucking drama queens, and Kuro is going into the time-out corner for making me cry before I realized he was fine. I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.

The Fox Wife begins in 1908, on a train heading south from Manchuria. On this train are a pimp and a fox, though the fox happens to be woman-shaped. There are many names for what she is – huxian, “immortal, transcendent fox being” or “fox fairy”; hujing or hulijing, “fox spirit”; huyao, “fox demon”; hushen, “fox god” – but the main points are that she can present either as a human woman or as a pure white fox with dainty black feet, she cannot switch back and forth between forms without a great deal of trouble and so will go as one or the other for long stretches of time, and pimps tend to be an exploitable nuisance rather than a threat. She had a happy life for many years in the grasslands of Kirin with her husband Kuro, a black fox, but their idyllic existence was shattered when their cub was killed by a local hunter. The hunter is long gone, and now the fox is on the hunt for Bektu Nikan, the Manchurian photographer who commissioned the death of her daughter. She is a force beyond nature, an enraged ex-wife, a mother on a mission. As for the pimp, well, he’s a pimp. Look, he gets unlucky. Anybody could have the bad sense to be at the Mukden train station at the wrong time.

Anyway, the pimp has some ideas of his own, but they mean very little to the fox, who takes his money and leaves him in the dust. From Mukden she proceeds to Dalian, where Bektu was last known to be, and buys two geese on a whim immediately upon arrival. The geese are a bit random as far as her plan goes – I mean, no judgment here, you never know when a couple of geese will come in handy – but they do catch the attention of the wife of a medicine shop proprietor, who offers the fox a job. Needing a place to stay and a steady source of food, the fox agrees, giving her name as Hu Xue’er (literally “Fox Snow,” or “Snow Fox” in Western nomenclature). I am making a certain assumption here, because Snow also mentions the Manchurian, Mongolian, and Japanese versions of her name. But, since she is in the far north of China and working for a Chinese family, presumably she uses the Mandarin version when introducing herself to them. In any case, the point is moot because she is promptly dubbed Ah San (“Number Three”) just before she starts work as the personal maid of Huang Tagtaa, the widowed mother of the shop owner. Though infamously choosy about her servants, Tagtaa feels a connection with Snow, who she instinctively knows is different, and they end up getting along quite nicely.

The catch is that Tagtaa’s family suffers from a mysterious curse, under which the eldest son always perishes in his early twenties and the second son inherits the business. Her grandson Bohai seemed safe, given that he has four sisters and no brothers, but now he is dangerously close to the year of expiration, and his father’s mistress is expecting a child. If that child is a boy, it’s lights out for Bohai. This makes him cranky, edgy, and paranoid, especially as he has lately begun to see people who have no shadows, which signals the beginning of the end. Paradoxically, his rapidly accelerating doom has also made him more reckless, and he and his friends – Lu Dong and Chen Jianyi, both from wealthy families – have recently fallen in with the dangerously charismatic Shirakawa, a (seemingly) young man who charms them into giving him money to invest in the brewing plot to overthrow the remains of the Qing government. Recognizing Shirakawa as an old acquaintance named Shiro, Snow immediately sets about spying on him, both for her own purposes and her mistress’s. Shiro manages to turn this to his own advantage when he gets a suspicious Snow nominally on his side, promising her unfettered access to Bektu Nikan in exchange for her help with keeping Chen interested (and, by extension, financially committed) in his revolutionary fraud scheme.

All of this leads Snow to sail to Japan in company with Shiro, along with her mistress, Bohai, Lu, and Chen. Tagtaa intends to keep Bohai safe from his family curse in Japan, where he is supposed to be attending university anyway. Bohai and his friends initially plan to drop out of school in order to join the revolution, but they begin to get cold feet as the idea of war grows increasingly unattractive. Snow, of course, wants Bektu Nikan, but she is irritated to find that Shiro arranged for their party to stay in a house rented by Kuro, whom she has not seen since the death of their daughter. Her plans for revenge completely fall through when somebody murders Bektu before she can formulate a plan, causing her to ponder the emptiness of vengeance. With the Japanese police suspicious over Bektu’s death and the growing unease among Bohai and his friends, the entire party returns to Dalian, with Kuro tagging along. What should have been a routine journey quickly takes a turn into possible murder when Chen disappears after physically assaulting Snow, putting every living generation of the Huang family under the violent scrutiny of Chen’s outraged father.

Meanwhile, 63-year-old Bao – private detective, walking lie detector, and fox enthusiast – stumbles onto Snow’s trail when he begins to investigate the very strange death of a young courtesan in Mukden. In fact the girl was more or less murdered by Shiro, who slightly overdid it when he was stealing her qi and ended up sucking her dry, but almost all of Bao’s witnesses tell him about a mysterious woman who might not necessarily have been involved in the death but still was clearly not human. This seems strangely fortuitous, because Bao has nursed an obsessive interest in foxes for most of his life. As a child he had his shadow removed by a fox at the request of his nanny (who, it should be noted, had only good things in mind), but this inadvertently granted him the ability to distinguish lies from truth. His fascination was cemented by Tagtaa, daughter of a neighbor’s concubine, who was introduced to him as a playmate when his mother fired his nanny. Though mutually attracted, neither he nor Tagtaa ever spoke of their affection for each other, and they haven’t seen each other since childhood. As adults, they retain an almost childlike wonder in regard to foxes: Bao hopes to encounter a fox, while Tagtaa hopes to reunite with the fox – who, as it happens, is Kuro – who found her lost in the Mongolian grasslands and took her back to her family.

As events spiral wildly out of anyone’s control, Bao finally crosses paths with Tagtaa and the foxes when he is dragged into the Chen family’s conflict with the Huangs. Amidst the chaos engendered by the mere presence of three foxes, Bohai’s condition continues to deteriorate until he finally attacks Bao, mistaking him for a harbinger of his own death, and is forcibly removed to a sanatorium. The foxes don’t fare much better: after an interview with Chen’s father goes disastrously wrong, they are forced to make a speedy getaway, which ends with Kuro injured and the Chen mansion burning to the ground. Having recently begun to soften towards Kuro despite her anger at him for leaving their daughter unattended, Snow grieves extravagantly and prematurely, and is annoyed when Kuro turns out to be only mildly hurt. It’s nothing a couple of geese can’t fix, anyway (see, I told you they’d be useful), and the restorative powers of the slaughtered geese even give Kuro enough energy to heal the much more gravely injured Bao. Just to make sure Kuro doesn’t get all the attention, Shiro becomes convinced that he has been poisoned by a jilted mistress, but lives to scam another day when said mistress reveals that she only pretended to put poison in his wine to make him sweat. He is then kidnapped by that same mistress and dragged off to live with her and her Russian patron, because the gods do occasionally have a mean sense of humor.

Despite his stabbing at the hands of his crush’s crazy grandson, Bao renews his friendship with Tagtaa, who tells him she will wait for him to return to Dalian after he settles his affairs in Mukden. With everyone very thoroughly unsettled, Snow and Kuro gracefully retreat back to the north, where they renew their relationship and think about making a fresh start in Korea as unassuming herbalists, though they have differing ideas on their business model and potential uses for their projected earnings. At the very end, Snow finishes her diary, her account of her quest for revenge and its aftermath, and tucks it under the wall of an abandoned fortress for future generations to find.

I am being unusually vague and detail-skippy in this particular review, but that can’t really be helped. If I wanted to record every detail and plot turn, I’d have to retype the entire book. Its aching slowness is deceptive, because it is packed with such intricate detail that the kind of summary I normally do is almost impossible. To be clear, I’m not dinging it for its pacing. The slowness works to its advantage, particularly with three characters who can live forever and have most definitely seen some shit. Snow’s narration is neatly balanced by Bao’s, which tends to be slightly quicker – Bao does, after all, have less time to waste than Snow – and the two paths mingle beautifully as Bao draws closer and closer to the foxes. More importantly, I was never bored while reading this book, because Snow is the most entertaining narrator I’ve encountered this year. She is smart, hilarious, sharp as a tack. (Maybe we’d better make that a butcher’s knife.) She is funny in a way that makes me think she doesn’t intend to be funny, though her author knew exactly what she was doing. Even during an attempted seduction, her first thought is not “I will take off my belt to make Chen think I am disrobing,” it is “I will take off my belt because maybe I can tie him up with it before I abandon him in the bushes.” I love her feistiness, her resourcefulness, even her rage. And, surprisingly, I love her relationship with Kuro.

It helps that I really love Kuro on his own even if he is a goddamned drama queen I swear I’m going to help Snow strangle him. He is Snow’s foil, ultra serious and utterly devoted to his loved ones, and he, too, is incredibly funny, though he never means to be. I love his patience with Snow. I love that he genuinely cares for her and tries to look out for her without the possessiveness that marred The Night Tiger. He had the potential to be one-dimensional, but he is so sweet and so sincere, even if he looks slightly dull beside the flash and fire of Shiro and Snow. And yet this straight-faced sincerity doesn’t make him weak: he has his principles and he sticks to them, but he is also capable of murderous rage, as when he kills the hunter who dug his cub out of her den. At the same time, he can absolutely tell Snow that he will go away to the mountains to become a monk if she tells him to leave her again, and it works. He’s so genuinely concerned about her that he offers to commit murder on her behalf, to keep her from failing their shared journey to enlightenment. I have to admit that I kind of like Shiro too, lazy, thoughtless pest that he is, and I’m actually glad he survives the fake poison (and, if Kuro’s information is accurate, moves to Formosa – jealous mistress in tow – to open a sugar factory). I also love Bao and Tagtaa, who are so wholesome both together and apart, and I hope they can have some time together before the end. I would so love for them to have a happy, if unconventional, ending.

I won’t say that the book is completely watertight, because I do have some questions. I am unclear on the origins of the Huang family curse, which might or might not have been an invention of Shiro’s. I don’t know if he engineered the whole thing and groomed the Huang men over several generations, or if he simply saw an existing curse and exploited it. On the other hand, I suppose I don’t really need an explanation. As I have gone through the process of reviewing this book, I have begun to appreciate the absolute chaos of the story. And this is, of course, entirely intentional, because if two foxes are a crowd, three is a recipe for disaster. In the hands of a lesser writer this might have been messy, cluttered, and purposelessly dysfunctional, but Choo handles the mayhem with enviable control. The book is slow and it is dense, but it is never hard to follow, and the writing is so lovely and at times so sharply funny that I could sink into the words alone and never give a thought to the story.

With Choo’s last two books, I sort of had the feeling that if I pushed against the walls of the world she had created, I would find nothing beyond their boundaries. I didn’t have that feeling with this book, possibly because the foxes are smoothly incorporated into the human world, where The Ghost Bride and The Night Tiger treated the supernatural element as a parallel universe. This isn’t to say that The Fox Wife isn’t related to the other two. It is an irrefutable member of the general Yangsze Chooverse, as proven when Snow briefly meets Ah Lian, the young woman who will go on to become Lee Shin’s mother. This is the kind of nitpicky detail that drives my fangirl heart absolutely wild. I wish I could say Ah Lian will have a long, happy life, but, well, we all know how that turns out. All the same, I am glad to have this little link to Choo’s last book. The Night Tiger referenced The Ghost Bride and now The Fox Wife has referenced The Night Tiger, and I am really hoping this is a habit – a tradition, if you will – that Choo will continue in future books because I am that fangirl who will read every book and memorize them all.

Either way, I am a Yangsze Choo stan for life (or until some future book displeases me, whichever comes first). I might have been slightly on the fence after rereading The Night Tiger, but I’m not anymore. She is officially a member of my auto-buy list. I love her imagination, her humor, and her writing, and, even though I just finished her newest book, I am already looking forward to the next one.