Kitsune-Tsuki / Kitsune-Mochi, by Laura VanArendonk Baugh – book reviews by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten
Kitsune-Tsuki, by Laura VanArendonk Baugh
Indianapolis, IN, Æclipse Press, September 2012, trade paperback $4.99 (v + 96 pages), Kindle $1.99.
Kitsune-Mochi, by Laura VanArendonk Baugh
Indianapolis, IN, Æclipse Press, October 2013, trade paperback $8.99 (xiii + 291 pages), Kindle $2.99.
Are Baugh’s Kitsune Tales Books 1 and 2 anthropomorphic or not? It’s impossible to tell until about halfway through Kitsune-Tsuki, defined in the glossary as “state of being possessed by a fox spirit”.
These two books are set in Heian Japan, the historical period from 794 to 1185 A.D. This was the period of the most formal Imperial courts, and when the belief in Shintoism, Buddhism, and Taoism were at their height. The imperial court’s most influential courtiers may have been the onmyōji, the practitioners of soothsaying, divination, astronomy, and other forms of fortune-telling. Hardly anyone, from the emperor to his concubines to their servants, did anything without checking with an onmyōji first to find out whether it would result in good luck or bad luck. The most famous onmyōji was Abe no Seimei (921-1005), who was believed to also be a powerful wizard. See the 2001 Japanese feature Onmyōji (it’s on YouTube) about Abe no Seimei as a good wizard battling evil onmyōji trying to destroy the emperor.
This was also the period when belief in ghosts, demons, and shapechanging spirits was at its height, including belief in nine-tailed kitsune (foxes) and fox-spirits possessing people. The insane were believed to be possessed by a fox-spirit. So in Kitsune-Tsuki a short novella or even a novelette), belief in fox spirits is not necessarily a fantasy about their reality. But yes, unmistakable fox-spirits do finally appear.
Tsurugu no Kiyomori is an onmyōji called to the court of Naka no Yoritomo, a powerful daimyō (regional lord) with a court rivaling the emperor’s.
“Naka no Yoritomo believed that a local kitsune meant to work mischief upon him or his new wife, Fujitani no Kaede. There had been strange incidents in the countryside of late, with objects of value disappearing and irrational stories offered by confused laborers for missing goods and missing hours. There had even been a recent case of kitsune-tsuki in the farmers’ village below, a poor young girl possessed by a fox spirit and driven to madness.” (pgs. 2-3)
Tsurugu, a genuine mystic, is politely skeptical. Nothing has happened that could not be explained by mundane superstition or trickery. He assumes that Yoritomo-dono has just used the incidents as an excuse to add a prestigious onmyōji to his court. Still, Tsurugu believes in giving value for the daimyō’s hospitality, so he conducts a supernatural inspection along with the lord’s regular investigator, Kagemura no Shishio Hitoshi, whom Tsurugu calls “Ookami-kun”, wolf-lad. The first book is more than half over before things happen that may be of a genuine supernatural nature. I would not give away a major spoiler except that it is hinted at in the book’s blurb:
“The handsome mute twin servants belonging to Lady Kaede are certainly suspicious, but it is the beautiful and strong-willed lady herself who draws Shishio’s mistrust. Tsurugu and Shishio must move carefully – accusing the warlord’s bride falsely would be death. But failing to identify the kitsune to the warlord is equally perilous, and there is more to discover.”
There certainly is! Kitsune-Tsuki (the winner of the 2012 Luminis Prize) has a major surprise ending. Those who like it will want to go on immediately to the sequel, Kitsune-Mochi (“fox possessor, a human who bound or used kitsune”).
It’s a true novel, almost three times as long. To review it in depth would give away too many spoilers in Kitsune-Tsuki, but briefly, Tsurugu returns along with the kitsune from the first book, plus “a host of oni, tengu, kappa, and others”. Tsurugu is gravely wounded; an unprincipled enemy onmyōji plots to destroy Lord Yoritomo and Lady Kaede; and there is a tender love affair between a fox-spirit and a human girl:
“She was cold, and hungry despite her distress, and she knew she should seek firewood and food. There might be berries ripening in the autumn woods, or nuts. But the tasks seemed too large and too difficult, and she could not bring herself to rise.
Something moved in the hut’s fallen doorway, and she glanced up with a start, half-expecting to see someone from the house come after her. But something else was there, and she stared in disbelief.
The fox took another step, edging into the room, and laid down the dead fowl it carried. It looked at her with an unnaturally steady gaze.
She stared at the animal, her heart pounding in her chest. ‘Kitsune?’ she whispered.
The fox was a pale color, almost amber. Its ears tipped back as she spoke.
She swallowed. ‘I have been driven out because of you, foul kitsune. I have lost everything.’
The pale fox dropped its head and nudged the dead fowl.
Murame began to pluck the chicken, her eyes still on the fox. The feathers hardly seemed to add to the litter of the hut. ‘You’re not much of a kitsune, are you?’ she said after a moment. ‘You have only one tail.’
The fox’s ears rotated backward in an expression that must have been embarrassed annoyance. This struck her as funny and she laughed, surprising herself.” (pgs. 55-57)
The other yōkai include a kyuubi (a nine-tailed fox), a bakeneko (a cat-monster), a kawāso, a river otter spirit; and more:
“Someone gave a keening cry, and others joined. Yips, yelps, shrieks, howls, and shouts rose into the dawn, an acclaiming cry as humans rarely heard, feet drumming the earth to replace the great drum.” (p. 230)
Baugh semi-apologizes in an Author’s Note to Kitsune-Mochi that “Folklore changes, of course, and in the last century or so particularly, the inhuman have been sanitized and de-fanged like never before.” Thus while her Not-Japan is generally as faithful to Heian-era Japan as possible, her kappa, tengu, and other yōkai are, if not as bowdlerized as the friendly versions in modern Japanese children’s picture books and movie and TV animation, not as fearsome as the ghoulish supernatural monsters of the past.
R. H. Potter’s cover for Kitsune-Tsuki is also available on a T-shirt on Baugh’s website.