I purchased this book (the start of the Tales of Akatsuki) some time ago because the blurb and the use of the Japanese mythology caught my attention. I am not a Japanophile, but that very lack of absorption draws me to explore stories unknown to me. Add to that the Kitsune as trickster figures, and this book won a place on my schedule. The piece it did not live up to in my opinion was the retelling aspects. Little Mermaid is one of those complicated tales that has both original and broadly known meanings that are in contradiction. How retellings explore those aspects can be fascinating, but the connection between this story and Little Mermaid is weak, resting mostly on a witch stealing the voice from a character’s throat.
Don’t let the last stop you from giving the book a try, though. It offers a complicated, multilayered tale about love, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice. The tone is mostly a fairytale lilt, though the characters are more developed than in traditional fairytales, and the world is early alt Japanese where the people are separated into competing clans and the fantastic have a place not just in ritual but also in reality. I don’t know Japanese folklore well enough to recognize themes and influences of known stories, but the tale offers the sense of a greater mythology just out of reach, something that gives the book weight. There are both plot seeds and red herrings to keep the story moving, too.
The cast is larger than I expected from the beginning focus on Rin and Hikaru. While it is their story, it’s also that of Shin, Rin’s best friend; Hotaru, Hikaru’s brother; and Naoki, a servant of the forest guardian, among others. The tale itself has feelers into the past with the mystery of Hikaru’s mother, and into the future as well, though the main focus is resolved in a manner I quite appreciated by the end of the book.
The book has a good number of writing issues that some will pass off as stylistic, but threw me out of the story at times. For example, there are comma splices (which is odd because there are also correctly used semi-colons), unclear pronouns, and cases where the POV switches for a paragraph or two, but not enough of the last to change the POV to multiple third from one POV per scene. Mixed in with this are some actual typos.
I also feel the story would have been served better by starting a few minutes earlier, when Hikaru offends the forest guardian and brings his party through the forest. Instead, it begins when Rin saves Hikaru in the forest with no sense of how he came to be there. We learn the full story in a later flashback, and it’s not the only key scene left out in favor of flashback or inference.
Those two issues are why this book gets a nod but not as enthusiastic a one as it deserves. Whenever the writing issues threw me out, the characters, political and emotional tangles, mysteries, and fascinating cultural elements pulled me back in. This book worked for me on many levels and it’s a pity that wasn’t true with every aspect.
Ultimately, the characters are complex and the use of a broad number of perspectives as well as showing the characters in action allowed us to both see when perceptions were misguided and the strengths within each of them, but especially Hikaru. Rin begins and ends the story in a very different place, but stays true to her core. One element I appreciated, though, is how the Yokai demonstrate different motivations from humans rather than being human with fox ears glued on.
While Rin discovers more in common with the humans in her time among them than she would have thought possible, she does not convert to a human simply because of her growing affection for Hikaru. The brother is another character who changes without changing. There’s a point where I considered him the villain, and some might agree with that assessment, but there’s more going on.
Meanwhile, the witch is an actual villain, but of the whole series. We see only pieces of her plan as she ensnares the others to do her bidding, but the scope and whether she’s been foiled still remain unknown. Everyone has reasons, motivations that drive them, whether known or not. This doesn’t make them good, it doesn’t even make them sympathetic necessarily, but it makes them more well rounded than I would expect in a fairytale.
I didn’t even get to mention the bargains and how you’ve never quite won what you think you have. There are many elements familiar to me from other cultures that crop up here, and the complexity is a wonder to behold. I’ve gone on long enough in any case. Despite its flaws, there’s much to enjoy in Kitsune and hope for the future novels where greater or just related stories wait to play out.