Review of The Ronin and The Fox by Cornelia Grey

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Reviewed for JoyfullyJay on 3/10/12

Rating: 3.75 stars

The Ronin And The Fox

Following a dispute with his lord, Samurai Hajime left his master’s realm to become ronin, a masterless samurai.  As he journeys through one village, the innkeeper begs him to stay and help drive away a kitsune or fox spirit that is bedeviling the village.  Lacking destination or purpose to his life, Hajime agrees to help.  A seductive encounter with Katsura, a gorgeous young man in his room at the inn leaves Hajime reeling and drained. Imagine Hajime’s surprise when upon capturing the kitsune, it turns out that the fox spirit is the same young man who seduced him that first night at the inn.

Being captured is the least of Katsura’s troubles.  The pearl containing his soul has been stolen by an unscrupulous healer who has forced him to do his bidding.  It is the yamabushi or religious healer, not Katsura, who is the real cause of the village’s problems.

Hajime feels sorry for the kitsune and is honorbound to help Katsura retrieve his soul and save the village from further harm.  But their partnership is not without obstacles, including former samarai, spells, encounters with water spirits, and issues of trust.  Will they obtain the pearl and save the village and Katsura?  Or will the kitsune’s own nature bring disaster upon them both.

I will state right from the start that I liked the characters of Hajime and Katsura.  Hajime is a person who, having achieved his goal of being a samurai, finds himself a round peg trying to fit into a square hole.  He’s kind, a man of honor who doesn’t do well with authority and just wants to help people.  Definitely not samurai material.  Katsura is a long-lived kitsune but still retains his impulsiveness and folly of youth.  It is due to his own stupidity and gluttony that his pearl was stolen.  How can you not love a spirit who is his own worst enemy?  They are the best part of this story.

I wish the author had taken her story and placed it in modern Japan.  I would have loved to see how Katsura dealt with today’s Japan.  Instead she set it in Shogun era Japan and all the problems with this novel tumble forth.

First the dialog and the phrasing.  Cornelia Grey tries for dialog as it might have been spoken in feudal Japan, using the titles of  “samurai dono” when the innkeeper is speaking to Hajime.  This is an old form of “sir” not used today.  But then phrases such as “he was in his early twenties”, “I could have timed that better”, or Katsura saying being a fox spirit “has got to have it’s perks” brings the story to a jarring halt and dispels any idea that these are men/beings of antiquity.  Further references to Katsura’s “alien gold eyes”, “stroke of genius”, “where on Earth” and “throw his life away” left me reading in disbelief.

The author also tells us repeatedly that Katsura is wearing an orange yukata but never informs the reader that it is a summer kimono.  Most people are aware of what a kimono looks like and had she used that term instead, it would have clarified what he was wearing. Yet, later on, Cornelia Grey tells us that the healer is wearing “his tokin—a small black hat tied just above his forehead”.  Better editing leads to better continuity.

The Samurai era started about 646 ce and ends in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration.  Japan was an isolationist society with layer upon layer of rules and rituals that governed society and its castes.  Such phrases and words such as timing, aliens and perks are modern and mostly Western in origin let alone “where on Earth”.  Also samurai followed a code of conduct called “bushido” which  translates to the way of the warrior.  It is honor, courage, and freedom from the fear of death.  Yet, Hajime says he was “trying to be honorable and kind, as the bushido instructed”and that he “didn’t want to throw his life away”.   *Shakes head*  Well, no, bushido doesn’t instruct that, in fact, bushido even demanded that sepukko or ritual death be committed in certain situations.  So actually, yes, do throw that life away, bushido demands it.

I got the impression that much of this story has been drawn from Manga and not history.  Hajime is actually a boxing manga and anime series. Also the kitsune has some attributes  that come from yuri/yaoi manga fandoms and not Japanese folk tales.  The fox spirit is Japan’s answer to our own Coyote trickster.  It can change shape, possess people in some instances and loves to play tricks, especially on the arrogant and unworthy. Here the land is drained of its energy by the fox spirit and the kitsune drinks Hajime’s blood. The vampiric nature of Katsura seems to have its basis in Shouji Ai or lesbian manga as the Japanese folktales do not mention this.

Writing historical fiction, even one that has fantasy overtones, can be tricky, as mistakes with dialog, dates and culture are easily pinpointed and distract from the story.  Cornelia Grey had a wonderful novel here and she buried it under poor word choices, unintentionally funny dialog, and uneven editing.  And that is such a shame.  Hajime and Katsura deserve much better.

Cover.  The cover is lush and portrays a scene in the book beautifully.  I wish the book was as well done.