James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Fly Away Home

The Fox Wife

By Yangsze Choo 

8 Mar, 2024

Doing the WFC's Homework

1 comment

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Yangsze Choo’s 2024 The Fox Wife is a historical fantasy novel.

1908: the Qing Empire’s decline is going from gradual to rapid. It is a time of chaos, a time of opportunity and danger.

In Japanese-dominated Dalian, a woman calling herself Snow is hired to serve Tagtaa, an old widow. Snow is a fox woman. Her goal: to make enough money to survive while she searches for photographer Bektu Nikan, who was responsible for the death of her child. She is determined to see the man dead. Snow is irritated to discover that she is only the second fox person to attach themselves to the household. Tagtaa’s grandson Bohai has fallen under the spell of another fox, a man named Shirakawa who delights in spreading chaos.

Nikan is no longer in China. He has traveled to Japan. Providentially for Snow, Tagtaa and her family are eager to visit Japan. Not only does Japan offer educational opportunities for Bohai, visiting Japan will place distance between Bohai and treason charges that may or may not wait for him back in China.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese-ruled city of Mukden, former functionary turned private detective Bao has a new case. It’s a difficult case, but he may be able to solve it, for in addition to a keen mind, he has a useful talent: he can tell lies from truth1.

Bao has been asked to identify a beautiful woman whose smiling corpse was found frozen in a restaurant doorway. If she is to be buried with the proper religious ceremonies, her name is required. Now Bao can make an educated guess as to her occupation — probably a courtesan. His initial investigation suggests that she might have been named Chunhua, but further investigation is needed, particularly since Chunhua is likely a stage name, not her original name.

The dead woman died with a glorious smile on her face. To Bao, this suggests that she might have been bewitched. He has always been fascinated by legends of fox people; the circumstances suggest that this might just be a real-life fox murder… that is, if fox people were real and not figures of myth. Bao focuses on the mundane facts. He uncovers a doleful but utterly conventional tale of a naive rural girl enticed by a charming pimp from her native Wu Village to Mukden. What led her to freeze in the doorway proves less obvious.

Bao’s case and Snow’s quest for vengeance seem unlikely to intersect. They will. The two plotlines are connected; not only that, but Bao also discovers that there is a connection between Snow’s employer and himself that dates back decades.

The consequences of this intersection will be surprising.


Western readers might expect Bao’s case to somehow seamlessly merge with Snow’s quest for vengeance, leading to a denouement that resolves both plots. In fact, while the two cases are connected, tidy resolution is not in the cards. Life is not tidy, and neither is this novel.

Qing-era China is characterized by social stratification and oppression of the lower classes; it is not known for even-handed justice. Set your expectations accordingly. By the end of the novel, we will know what happened and why… but we won’t see suitable punishment for all the evildoers. Some of the guilty do indeed die violent deaths, but the deaths do not neatly tie up loose ends. Murder, no matter how justified, hurts the killers.

While readers familiar with the period will be aware that the unrolling future will NOT be happy for China, it’s still possible for individuals to earn their happy endings. A few characters in this novel do. Who they are may come as a surprise.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Choo’s novels is that the author is not content to reprise earlier works. One is never entirely certain what one will find between the book’s covers. However, readers can be assured of characters about whom they will care, a plot that entertains, and prose worth the investment of time. This novel (and the previous two) are the proofs.

The Fox Wife is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books).

1: I was reminded of Urabe, the protagonist of the manga Usotoki Rhetoric. Is this a coincidence or have both works drawn on a common inspiration?