As a teenager, I read YA fantasy and sci-fi exclusively. I devoured book after book, feeding off stories of vampires and werewolves, of interstellar rebellions and earthbound dystopias. Name a well-known novel in the genre and I’d probably read it at some point already.
About five years ago, I closed the cover of the last YA fantasy novel I’d read for a long time – that is, until recently. Half a decade later, I decided to delve into the shelves of my local bookstore and see what had changed since I’d last explored the genre.
While deliberating over my options, I spotted the purple-pink binding of Kat Cho’s debut novel Gumiho: Wicked Fox (2019). I am very interested in Korean folklore and especially tales of the nine-tailed fox, so, seeing the title, I picked up a copy and headed off with it (after paying, of course).
Honestly, I was expecting to have ‘grown out’ of the genre. I was wrong. Within the first few chapters the line was cast; I was hooked and drawn in. Not only was I incorrect in buying into the condescending belief that YA was somehow ‘beneath me’ now, but I was also wrong in assuming, perhaps subconsciously, that this book would be no different to any other urban fantasy.
Before I get into why Wicked Fox was such a gleaming example of unique and good YA literature, I’ll give some (spoiler-free) context to the novel. First off, if you don’t know what a gumiho is, you might want to start your research by watching this very short video featuring Kat Cho, who summarises it better than I will. But, simply put, a gumiho is a nine-tailed fox that can shapeshift into a beautiful woman. In many tales, the fox uses her power to seduce men and steal their life force. Their reasons for doing so and how they do it varies. Some stories tell of a magical marble, the yeowoo guseul, each gumiho holds inside her body. Using the yeowoo guseul (in English, ‘fox bead/marble’) she can absorb the energy of her victims and with their life force fuel her powers.
Gu Miyoung is the protagonist of Kat Cho’s novel. She is a half-human, half-gumiho. With the help of a shaman, she tracks evil men through the streets of Seoul and uses her fox bead to steal their life force every full moon. According to her gumiho mother’s strict ruling, she can never reveal her true nature to a human. However, Miyoung breaks this rule when saving Jihoon from a goblin. In doing so, she loses her fox bead, endangering her life. Now, her fate is tied with Jihoon’s, and she must choose between her life and his.
When I first read the blurb of Wicked Fox, I noticed that it was a little longer than most novels. Mistakenly, I thought the entire plot was printed there. Oh, no – the blurb doesn’t even begin to cover all that happens in this story. That isn’t to say that too much happens, or that it’s poorly paced – not at all.
There’s a lot of well-paced, well-developed and gripping content. It’s almost as though an entire TV series has been compacted into a four-hundred-page novel. Every chapter is concise and purposeful, either progressing the plot or developing character relationships; they’re almost like scenes, some chapters only a few pages long.
Kat Cho has said she took a lot of inspiration from Korean drama which really shows. If you like reading and you like K-drama, and you want to see the two merged into one, this book is definitely for you.
There is a strong focus on friendship. Brief scenes, where characters get to know one another outside of the fantasy plotline, are dedicated to progressing these relationships. These scenes are effectively balanced alongside the main storyline, endearing us to the protagonists and investing us in their private lives.
Outside of the main plot, the protagonists have their own drama which, while not the sole focus, is effectively touched upon, making for deep and complex characters. I must admit that, at first, I didn’t like Miyoung, but when I learnt more about her backstory, I really felt for her. She quickly came to be my favourite character.
On top of that, the plot twists were surprising but feasible and gave new dimensions to an already thrilling story. Considering the book is soon to be followed by a second in the series, it’s looking like these twists will open exciting new plot developments in future editions. I can’t give anything away without ruining it for you, but as someone who prides themselves on sniffing out cliched twists, even I was shook.
Aside from the stellar plot, the writing style is both creative in its use of metaphor and easy to read. Throughout the book, Cho includes some original folktales of the gumiho and incorporates other elements of Korean myth, such as the dokkaebi. At the end of the book, there is a glossary of the Korean words used throughout, making it an educational read as well. If you’re interested in learning more about Korean folklore, especially the gumiho myth, this book is a fantastic place to start.
Now, not that this should be the only reason to read the book (but I feel a need to mention it) the cover design is really pretty. The paperback edition is made from a matte-look, soft kind of material, which just makes for a very comfortable read without fear of bending the spine. This might not matter much to some, but I’m superficial enough for this to be one of the reasons that I picked up the novel in the first place (honestly, sometimes I just stroke the cover because it feels so nice).
I’d highly recommend Gumiho: Wicked Fox to fans of urban fantasy, to anyone interested in Korean folklore and especially to those who, like me, mistakenly think their YA novel-reading days are behind them. For me, this book was a great way to get back into the genre and to prove my misconceptions wrong.
Wicked Fox’s sequel Vicious Spirits will be released in August this year. Check out Kat Cho’s website here for updates, to learn more about her journey towards publication and for blog articles on writing.
Tags: Penguin Books, New Books 2020, Romance, Korean Drama, Demons, YA, Kat Cho, Gumiho, Myth, Fantasy