Review: Wicked Fox – Let’s Talk About What Cultural Representation Means

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Release Date: June 29th, 2019
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Korean mythology, Family

Rating: 7.0/10

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It’s super fitting that this post is going live during Chuseok weekend (which is totally not planned, by the way, just a happy coincidence).

I’m gonna do something a little different with this review. First, I’m going to review this book as a story, with characters and plot and all that. And then, with that out of the way, I’m going to talk about what the book means to me in terms of representation (and that’s when things might get a wee bit weird).

 

1. A Normal Review

 

I worried–like, full-on existential dread worried–that I wouldn’t like this book, and I was questioning what that would mean for me as a Korean reviewer. Well, thankfully that’s a worry for another reality because I did enjoy the book, despite its rather rocky ending.

The first 2/3 of Wicked Fox was like the honeymoon glow of a new relationship. I was looking at everything with rose-tinted glasses, and sure, the story might have some flaws, but they’re nothing egregious, and in a way, they’re kind of charming. The last 1/3 was where the big issues reared their heads.

So let’s take a look at all the pros and cons! (pink heading=pros; blue=cons)

 

Casual Insertion of Korean Words

Cho uses a LOT of romanization (nouns mostly). I personally loved it because they made the narration and dialogue sound more authentic in my head–like a bilingual story, almost. (For example, she uses “Miyoung’s umma” in favour of of “Miyoung’s mom” or just “Mrs. Gu”)

If you’re unfamiliar with the language, however, you’ll have to consult the glossary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Glossaries are awesome! The annoying part is that, like most other books that come with glossaries, it’s found at the end of the story–something that will never, ever make sense to me.

 

Tropey Goodness

You’re going to see a lot of tropey K-drama sequences in this book, and that’s kind of what makes it charming (or annoying, depending on your tolerance level for tropey K-dramas). A gorgeous new student that all the girls are jealous of and all the guys want to date; said gorgeous student getting bullied by the mean girls and her love interest swooping in to save her; oh, and you can’t forget the slew of rainy-bus-stop-and-heart-to-heart-under-an-umbrella scenes.

It’s pure uncomplicated fun.

The main characters also kind of fall into tropeyness–and, again, that’s not a bad thing. Miyoung and Jihoon balance each other out really well, the latter being stiff and closed off and the former exuding earnest, positive energy, and their relationship is a believable one, each offering something that the other doesn’t have.

 

Family at the Heart of Everything

This is my favourite part. Pretty much every major event in the story places family at its center. Even after Miyoung and Jihoon get together and discover how potent romance can be, motivations still live and die by family. That’s

 

Pacing Crashes and Burns

The pacing takes a swan dive off a cliff in the last 1/3 of the book and the result is spectacularly bad. A lack of communication between the characters froze all action, and it felt like they were just waiting around to see what would happen next. I usually see this in lengthy romance novels, where the first 300 pages is used to build up tension and character relationships, but the last 100 pages ends up fizzling out into silent-and-angsty filler territory, and if don’t have patience for it in romance, I definitely don’t have patience for it in fantasy.

 

The Fate of Certain Characters

There are things that happen in the last stretch of the story that I didn’t react well to. And some of that has to do with events that happened in my own family in the last several months, so there’s definite bias here, but just…the whole situation felt emotionally manipulative (spoiler: because it felt like the author was trying to get the readers to believe that Jihoon’s grandmother will pull through, that Miyoung would be able to save her. But then she pulled the rug out at the last minute)

But that wasn’t the part that really bothered me.

SPOILER (highlight to read)

It was the part where Miyoung gets to meet her long-lost father, only to find out that he’s working against her, and then to have her mother sacrifice her life.

I guess I’m just sick of parents dying in stories. I’m sick of the idea that they have more to offer in their deaths than they would by living and working things out with their kids. Sick of “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” whispered like a final fucking gift so that the mc can understand that, yes, their mother/father did truly love them. It hones in on media’s obsession with orphaned children and absentee parents, and it’s a cheap way to do character development.

From a story so focused on family relationships, this was a disappointment for me. 

 

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2. Let’s Talk About Representation

 

Wicked Fox is the first fantasy book I’ve read that’s set in South Korea. And as a first gen Korean-Canadian, that. means. everything. I mean, I can’t even wrap my head around how much that means.

And what’s funny is that it’s a different feeling to seeing my sexuality or mental health represented. With something like depression, it’s an immediate, almost violent recognition of “Oh. That’s me.” Like being slammed with a sledgehammer that has my name scrawled around the handle. Not always pleasant, no, but satisfying in its intensity.

Cultural representation, I’ve realized, is a bit more insidious in how it presents itself. More like…a second skin settling beneath my own.

It’s a weird feeling and the best way I can process weird feelings is through weird fictional scenarios. I used this metaphor on Twitter, but let’s see if I can clean it up a bit:

 

A Questionable Metaphor

Let’s say you’re hunting for a new apartment.

One day, you attend a open house–your fifth in total (here you go again)–and you smile and nod along with the realtor trailing beside you, indulging his oral documentary on the building’s history. The lobby is indistinguishable from the other half dozen lobbies you’ve seen in the past month. The walls are a drab beige broken up in places by mystery stains. Everything is perfectly, reassuringly unremarkable.

Then you walk into the unit and freeze in your tracks.

This place you’ve never visited before, haven’t even seen photos of, has the exact same furnishings as your current place. Completely different layout, and there are few details that are different and specific to the owner, but everything else is identical. So it becomes this double-vision, twilight-zone moment–because this feels like home but it’s not home–and you’re just standing there feeling winded and invaded and, inexplicably, so right.

All the while, your brain is telling you to snap out it. This isn’t actually your home. It’s not even a good home, for fuck’s sake. The bedrooms are awkwardly shaped and the kitchen is bigger than the living room.

But you don’t care, do you? Because what matters is that there’s this large presence moving through you, a barely contained tremor of “mine, mine, mine,” and it says that this place is yours, always has been, always will be. The force of that is sharp enough to rend mountains, yet all it seems to do is hold you tighter.

 

What this Means

There’s much of Wicked Fox that feels not-home to me. It’s written in English, first of all–that’s a biggie–and I’m really not used to experiencing Korean settings through a Western-ish lens. Also, I didn’t have nine tails the last time I checked.

But overriding all that are details that scream home (imagine me underlining this ten more times). The relationship that Jihoon has with his grandmother, the creature legends that I grew up reading about, the emphasis on filial piety, the prevalence of eastern religion–take your pick.

And it’s not just those big stuff that matters. There are dozens of small moments in this book that seem trivial and irrelevant out of context, but add up to something monumental. Jihoon making kimchi with his grandmother. The smell of jjigae wafting through the house. Drinking banana milk at lunch. Playing StarCraft at a PC bang.

They’re scattered leavings of my upbringing, my blood, my history, and there is no high enough rating I can give that.

And I thank Kat from the bottom of my heart.

 

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At the end of the day, Wicked Fox is imperfect. But it’s also a first, and now there’s a divot in my heart with a shape that only first experiences can create.

And do you know? Those never go away.

Top 5 Wednesday – Mythical Creatures of Canada and Korea (and examples in media)

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s topic is “favourite monsters/mythological creatures” and I found myself struggling. Not because I couldn’t find any favourites, but because there are way too many of them out there. Stick a pin in any random spot in any random country and chances are they’ll have some mythological creature that’s unique to the region.

So I decided to get a little more specific and feature some monsters that are native to Korea and Canada (because–*waves*–Korean-Canadian here). And by “Canada” I mean its various First Nations tribes.

 

Wendigo

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Rooted in Algonquian mythology, Wendigos (or Windigos) are said to roam the forests of Canada and parts of northern U.S. either as a spirit or a physical monster (accounts seem to vary). Physically, it’s been described a rotting, emancipated werewolf-esque creature with preternatural speed and senses. Reeking of death and decay, the Wendigo is built to stalk and hunt humans. Its hunger is insatiable and no matter how much it feeds it remains in a state of perpetual starvation.

As a spirit, it can possess people and render them to a state of mindless hunger. Greedy people and people who have practiced cannibalism seem to be its most susceptible victims.

Books:

The Curse of the Wendigo (Monstrumologist 2) by Rick Yancey

This book remains my favourite Wendigo story to date. With trademark lyricism, Yancey captures the visceral horror of Wendigos and the isolation of the Canadian wilderness so well.

 

Inmyeonjo

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Inmyeonjo (인면조) is, simply put, a long-necked bird with the face of a human. And I absolutely hated the thing when I was a kid. The paleness of it combined with the period headdress made for some jarring nightmare fuel. But despite the sheer weirdness of its appearance, it’s a relatively benign creature, one whose existence is meant to bridge the sky with the land. After all, the South Korean Olympic committee included it in the PyeongChang opening ceremony as a symbol of peace and harmony.

 

Kumiho

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All you K-drama fans will be familiar with the kumiho/gumiho from the 2010 series My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox. Kumiho, which translates literally to “nine-tailed fox,” is an ancient fox spirit that can shapeshift into human form–most often a beautiful, seductive young woman. Much of East Asian folklore (and culture as a whole) is tightly intertwined, with big sibling China being the main influencer, so kumiho has its counterparts in kitsune (Japan) and huli jing (China).

The most notable difference is that kumihos carry a marble (size of a candy) containing the entirety of the foxes’ strength and knowledge. And a human can gain all that knowledge by swallowing the marble whole.

The other distinction is that while kitsune and hli jing are portrayed as mostly chaotic-neutral spirits–with tricks being the extent of their malevolence–kumihos are said to have a taste for human flesh. Male human flesh, in particular. With hearts and livers being their preferred delicacy. In some tales, the kumiho is able to shed its monstrous form and become fully human if it can resist the lure of flesh for 1000 days. This last bit I find fascinating because it really underscores the influence of Buddhism–the idea that our goal in life is to reach a higher state of being.

Books:

➽ The Fox Sister (webcomic)

A gorgeous comic set in 1968 Seoul. There are only 4 chapters out right now and it’s currently on hiatus, but it’s so worth taking a look.

➽ Foxfire, Foxfire (short story) by Yoon Ha Lee

I need to set an altar to Yoon Ha because he’s writing all the Korean speculative fic I need in my life. There’s currently a surge of mainstream Asian SFF (especially in YA), but Korean speculative stories remain curiously absent. At this point I’m tempted to just write one myself.

 

Qalupalik

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Originating from Inuit lore, Qalupalik is described as a humanoid sea creature that steals away disobedient children who stray a little to the water’s edge.

The interesting thing is that she doesn’t eat the children she captures but hides them away in her secret lair. Which seems…oddly anticlimactic and begs the question of what the heck happens to the kids afterward (do they drown and get arranged in the qaluplaik’s underwater cave like dolls?) but hey, it’s a story meant to keep children from misbehaving, not the The Silmarillion.

Books:

A Promise is a Promise by Robert Munsch:

Munsch is a national treasure and I’m pretty sure this book is where I first heard of the Qalupalik.

 

Dokkaebi

h.jpgThese guys are present in pretty much every Korean folktale. Dokkaebi are powerful horned goblins who carry around spiked clubs and other such magical objects. Unlike the ambivalence of Inmyeonjo and the violence of kumiho, dokkaebi are mostly just…goofy (in their action, at least. Their traditional appearance is red and hulking and rather quite scary). They seem to enjoy messing with humans as much as they like helping them, and they’re known to challenge hapless travelers to wrestling matches.

I’ve yet to encounter them in western literature, but a google image search for “dokkaebi” gave me a wall of Rainbox Six Siege results, which is how I learned that they have a new playable Korean character whose nickname is “Dokkaebi.” So that’s pretty neat!

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Have you ever encountered these in any media? And what are some of your favourite mythical creatures from your country?