‘Wicked Fox’ is an engrossing – if convoluted – YA fantasy

Kat Cho’s debut novel “Wicked Fox” is a little complicated, but the poignantly rendered family relationships and fantasy drama are worth the ride.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Wicked Fox” by Kat Cho, Putnam, 432 pp.

If you’ve devoured every novel by Jenny Han, Maurene Goo, and Ellen Oh, but that Korean-American young adult book itch just can’t be scratched, you’ll surely appreciate Kat Cho’s debut, “Wicked Fox.” In this twisting, melodramatic fantasy set in modern-day Seoul, a mythical fox girl stands to lose her soul, heart, and life to a very cute boy.

High school crushes have higher stakes than I remember.

Gu Miyoung is half-human, half-gumiho (a nine-tailed fox from Korean legend). Gumiho shapeshift into impossibly beautiful women who kill men, eat their livers, and absorb their energy to survive. The concept is cousin to the Japanese kitsune featured in 2013's "The Name of the Blade” series.

Miyoung, who’s conflicted about the whole murder thing, restricts her targets to the truly villainous (similar to Citra and Rowan from Neal Shusterman’s “Arc of a Scythe” series), because if she doesn’t feed, she starves to death. So is Miyoung fully good or bad, she wonders? She kills criminals to survive. Does that make her a merciful avenger of the innocent, or a cold-blooded monster in her own right? Should she value human life or her own survival?

When Miyoung encounters a dokkaebi, or goblin, attacking a human boy named Ahn Jihoon, she breaks one of her mother’s cardinal rules and saves Jihoon’s life. In so doing, she loses her yeowu guseul, or fox bead, which houses her immortal soul⁠ – and Jihoon picks it up, igniting a fabled connection. According to legend, the man who possesses a fox bead can control its gumiho, but the bead’s mythical power may destroy him in return.

Stick with me. This is just phase one of a truly convoluted plot. 

Miyoung enlists a young shaman named Nara to restore her fox bead, but something goes awry during the ritual and Miyoung is now haunted by the ghosts of her victims.

Meanwhile, the charming and attractive Jihoon strikes up a friendship with our sour, reluctant gumiho protagonist. Because Jihoon knows what she really is, Miyoung finds herself opening up. How much of their growing closeness is natural, and how much is due to the fox bead? There isn’t time to investigate⁠ – the teens are neck-deep in an intergenerational, supernatural family feud, not to mention studying for finals and avoiding school bullies.

As these thousand-and-one subplots pick up speed, “Wicked Fox” shifts from a magical high school adventure to an intense thriller-cum-melodrama, replete with endless raised eyebrows and single tears rolling down sharp cheekbones. It’s an abrupt shift in tone, especially given how much focus this complex plot requires. The intricacies of Korean mythology, and Cho’s multilayered cast interactions, present a huge tangle of narrative threads.

Where Cho shines, though, is her sensitive handling of traumatic relationships. She spends a great deal of narrative capital on the teens’ dysfunctional families, and I applaud the respectful clarity with which she describes their coping mechanisms. To survive, both kids chase control to avoid being hurt (or hurting others). They’re slow to trust, fanatical about privacy, and independent to a fault, always out of self-preservation.

Jihoon’s mother abandoned him to his halmeoni (grandmother) when he was small, and his criminal dad was never really in the picture. Jihoon and his halmeoni are close as can be, but it still hurts him to see his mother’s shiny, wealthy, do-over family. So he hides behind charm and humor in an attempt to control people’s attention on him⁠ – avoid the negative, dial up the positive, twist it to his advantage.

Miyoung is also hyper-focused on control, though with the goal of rigid, silent, untouchable perfection. Miyoung never knew her father, either; her gumiho mother, Yena, raised her with an iron fist and stratospheric expectations⁠, but little to no affection. They’ve moved so many times that Miyoung has no friends, no family but icy Yena. 

As these two gingerly interact, they’re forced to explain their reactions to each other, giving young readers a chance to see emotional intelligence in real time (e.g. “I felt this because X happened, so I did Y, and that caused Z”). This is most acute in the high school scenes, where Miyoung endures brutal bullying and Jihoon introduces her to his tight crew of friends.

Ultimately, the gnarly plot and grim details may outweigh the good in “Wicked Fox,” but I expect readers will love it anyway. K-culture fans will find much to love, as this novel rides the Korean Wave at high tide, and an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers trajectory is irresistible. Just go into “Wicked Fox” with open eyes.

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