The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

Some people think foxes are similar to ghosts because we go around collecting qi, or life force, but nothing could be further than the truth. We are living creatures, just like you, only usually better looking... 

Manchuria, 1908. 

A young woman is found frozen in the snow. Her death is clouded by rumors of foxes involved, which are believed to lure people by transforming themselves into beautiful women and men. Bao, a detective with a reputation for sniffing out the truth, is hired to uncover the dead woman’s identity. Since childhood, Bao has been intrigued by the fox gods, yet they’ve remained tantalizingly out of reach. Until, perhaps, now.

Meanwhile, a family that owns a famous Chinese medicine shop can cure ailments, but not the curse that afflicts them—their eldest sons die before their twenty-fourth birthdays. Now the only grandson of the family is twenty-three. When a mysterious woman enters their household, their luck seems to change. Or does it? Is their new servant a simple young woman from the north or a fox spirit bent on her own revenge?

New York Times bestselling author Yangsze Choo brilliantly explores a world of mortals and spirits, humans and beasts, and their dazzling intersection. The Fox Wife is a stunning novel about a winter full of mysterious deaths, a mother seeking revenge, and old folktales that may very well be true.

COVER ARTIST: Meryl Levavi (Design)
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Co.
YEAR: 2024
LENGTH: 400 pages
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Literary, Speculative Fiction

Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.

*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. 

THE FOX WIFE is a story of grief and reconnection, telling a small section in the life of a fox named Snow whose child was killed for the sake of a photographer's art. 

Snow is a thoughtful narrator, relaying her contemporaneous thoughts as best as she can, but sometimes hinting at the trajectory of events that haven't quite transpired in the narrative. She is grieving her child, and leaves the grasslands to track down the photographer who desired a fox pelt as a prop for his photos. Snow's perspective is alternated with that of an amateur investigator, Bao, who has been able to sense lies ever since his nanny prayed to a fox spirit during a childhood illness of his. Contrasting with Snow's chronological telling of events, the sections following Bao connect pieces of the narrative on a thematic level. Some deal with his childhood, particularly his friendship with a courtesan's daughter. Others follow him in his twilight years, contemporaneous to Snow's telling, with a whole life and marriage behind him, using his lie-sensing abilities to solve mysteries for people. What begins as an attempt to identify a dead woman turns into a meandering quest into rumors of foxes, and one particular woman who disappeared from a walled garden. 

The worldbuilding is relayed through conversation and Snow's observations, as well as Bao's thoughts. Snow tends to explain a fox's perspective on human things a contemporaneous reader could be expected to know, which works neatly to give insights into both Snow and the historical setting. There's an attention to the ways that women and girls are restricted for the sake of men's whims. The narrative is filled with wives, concubines, courtesans, and even girl-children who are treated according to their future matrimonial prospects (or lack thereof). Even Snow is most often called a nickname based on being the third servant to work for her eventual mistress. She is wary of male foxes, as human sexism translates into easier lives for them and more danger for her if she's caught up in their schemes. 

The three narrative strands weave together to tell a complete story. I was able to figure out many connections and identities by having access to all three perspectives. Bao, the detective was usually the last one to figure out exactly what fox-related thing was happening, but that's because he doesn't know if transforming foxes (like Snow) are real. Snow, for her part, isn't ready to talk about the more painful aspects of her recent history, so the reader must piece together what happened before the book started by combining what Bao finds with what Snow tells of foxes. It had a mystery feel without being an outright whodunnit for the reader. 

I know a book is great when it heavily features a theme I dislike or personally don't relate to but I love it anyway. Anyone who can make me love a book about being a grieving mother has done something very special. It handles this topic with care, gradually saying more of what happened to her child as Snow is able to process her grief. I was drawn back to it, finishing it in less than a week as I needed to know what would happen next. A third of the way in there was a plot point that in other books would have been wrapping things up, but instead the narrative blossomed in unexpected and very welcome ways. I would happily read more with Snow (or any other foxes) if the opportunity presented itself, but this story feels complete and is very satisfying. 

Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, child death, death.

Moderate CW for sexual content, sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, confinement, mental illness, trafficking, vomit, fire, gore, blood, violence, injury detail, medical content, murder, animal cruelty, animal death.

Minor CW for bullying, forced institutionalization, terminal illness, child abuse, torture, suicide, suicidal thoughts.

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An East Asian woman with long black hair and a red outfit walking through a snowy forest next to running water. In the water is a white fox in place of a human reflection.


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