Shadow of the Fox (2018) is the first of Julie Kagawa’s books that I’ve read, but based on how much I enjoyed reading it, this certainly won’t be the last. Readers don’t have to know anything about feudal-era Japanese culture, language, folklore, and customs that influenced the SHADOW OF THE FOX series, nor do they have to be ardent fans of manga/anime to appreciate what this first volume offers, but having even a little background in either will greatly enrich their reading experience.
Thousands of years ago, an audacious (and, I would argue, quite stupid) young lord got it into his head that he deserved to become a kami — an immortal god — by way of the Tama no Fushi, a jewel borne by the Great Dragon living beneath the seas surrounding the lands of Iwagoto. The Great Dragon took exception to this and punished the lord by nearly killing him and his retainers, at which point the lord repented and offered up a thousand prayers for forgiveness and mercy. The Dragon then offered the lord the choice between the granting of one single wish or the opportunity to retain his mortal soul. Appropriately chastened, the lord asked to return home with his soul intact, and was allowed to do so.
Yumeko needs Tatsumi’s help in order to travel safely to the Silent Winds Temple, where another piece of the scroll is hidden, but if he knows she carries a piece of the scroll or learns of her half-kitsune nature, he’s guaranteed to kill her on sight. Tatsumi needs Yumeko’s familiarity with temples and monks to get into the Silent Winds Temple, since the head monk there won’t give up the scroll fragment to just anyone. Along the way, they encounter blood magic, demons, ghosts both wayward and vengeful, ronin, and members of the imperial court … and the first stirrings of true friendship either has ever experienced.
Shadow of the Fox is packed with action and travel sequences, and I was impressed by how well Kagawa incorporated Japanese legends, myths, and kaidan (ghost stories) into the text. It’s a well-written YA novel, detailed without becoming bogged down, and I was surprised by how swiftly the plot moved along even though so much of a series’ first novel generally is devoted to introducing readers to characters and world-building. Kagawa’s writing is wonderfully descriptive and evocative of the feudal-era Japan so often featured in or heavily influencing manga and anime; think Inuyasha without the time-travel plot device, and you’re on the right path. Yokai (demons/spirits) like tanuki, kitsune, kodama, hitodama, and even kami are everywhere in Iwagoto, either hiding in plain sight among humans or keeping to themselves among the natural world, and the differences between Yumeko’s and Tatsumi’s reactions to those spirits — and to humans — is one of the best ways in which their differing characters and backgrounds are explored.
Yumeko and Tatsumi’s journey is episodic in nature as they travel through Iwagoto, providing each of them opportunities to display their aptitude (or lack thereof) with diplomacy or swordplay. The secrets they must hide from one another, compounded with their growing reliance on one another, complicate the narrative in a delightful way. Both characters use first-person narration, sometimes overlapping events slightly to provide different perspective, and their voices tend to read similarly at first, so it was a little difficult early on to figure out who was speaking until I realized that they trade chapters. After that, I was fine. Kagawa provides quick, but thorough explanations of terms or concepts that might be confusing to readers, and does a great job of incorporating those explanations into dialogue and the overall narrative structure.
Shadow of the Fox is fresh, exciting, and a lot of fun to read. I’ll absolutely be adding it to my personal library, and I’m already looking forward to the next SHADOW OF THE FOX volume, Soul of the Sword, currently scheduled for a June 2019 release.