Spirit Hunters Book 3: Tails High, by Paul Kidd – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

51jdimr-pplSpirit Hunters. Book 3: Tails High, by Paul Kidd. Illustrated.
Raleigh, NC, Lulu.com/Perth, Western Australia, Kitsune Press, September 2016, trade paperback $26.59 (423 pages), Kindle $7.90.

Here are four more of Paul Kidd’s witty tales of the Sacred Isles, the land of Japanese mythology; about a hundred pages apiece. The Spirit Hunters are a quartet who venture throughout mythical Japan hunting inimical yōkai (supernatural spirits) to exorcise or kill them. They are Lady Kitsune nō Sura, a fox woman, and her companion Tsunetomo Tonbo, a huge human samurai, who hope to be paid for their services; Asodo Kuno, a young low-ranking human samurai who has joined them to gain a reputation and higher status; and Nezumi nō Chiri, a shy rat-spirit who Sura has invited to join them. Sura and Chiri, and any other animal-people who the quartet meet, can shift among three forms: human except for animal ears and tail; anthropomorphic, looking human but with an animal head, full fur or feathers, and tail; and fully animal but still able to talk.

Book 3: Tails High is a bit darker than the first two. The first tale is light, but it turns ominous in its final paragraphs. These four are set a little later than 900 or 1000 A.D. The Emperor is faced by rising powerful regional lords (daimyō). He must decide whether to fight to retain his authority and have the Sacred Isles rent by civil war, or to appoint a warlord as his supreme general – his shogun – and submit to becoming a mere figurehead. We know how this turned out in our Japan. But in the Sacred Isles, with the Spirit Hunters’ aid …?

Book 3 contains the Eighth through Eleventh Encounters. In “Eighth Encounter: The Art of Being Koi …”, the Spirit Hunters come to an entire community of friendly animal-spirits:

“The main house had a great, broad porch shaded by a maple tree. A fine maiden dressed in white priestess’ robes sat in the shade, comforting a desolate young wife.

The weeping young woman was startlingly beautiful. Skin covered in magnificent golden scales, her face was that of a golden carp, with a delicately fanned fish-tail peeking out beneath her robes. Utterly exhausted from weeping, the carp spirit’s long sleeves were wet with tears.” (p. 26)

Tosakingyo Lady Asuka and Lord Chikaaki’s infant son Chōisai has been kidnapped. He is still in his formative period; without his parents’ guidance in learning to shape-shift, he will never become more than an especially radiant carp. The first half of this Encounter is a mystery; the Spirit Hunters must learn the motive and who among several suspects is responsible for the kidnapping. In the last half they must retrieve Chōisai; no easy task since the child is a large golden fish who must be kept in water. Sura’s and Chiri’s shape-shifting abilities come in handy here, and the entire Tosakingyo clan is exotic:

“The lesser samurai and ji-samurai that came and went from the courtyard were in human form – but the gold, black and silver patterns of their hair and tails peeking from beneath their robes showed that many of them were fish spirits. Tonbo watched with interest as the carp spirits moved back and forth, admiring their strange, gentle grace.” (p. 27)

The reader is shown why breeding decorative koi was such an art form in ancient Japan. This Eighth Encounter is the first to contain some characters from an earlier tale, the Sixth Encounter: “Friendship’s Sword”; Reiju the priestess, Hako and the Aki-Nami ninja, and Tanchō the crane-woman.

The “Ninth Encounter: Playtime’s End”, is much darker. The Spirit Hunters come to a haunted forest in which both samurai warriors and young children have been vanishing for a decade. The four investigate and find two kinds of menacing yōkai, one of which is truly horrid:

“The black water heaved. Bursting from beneath came a vast, hideous mass of tentacles and countless screaming skulls.

The creature was a nightmare – a titanic, bestial amoeba made of rotting flesh, old armour, swords and fused bone. Skulls were packed all through the immense creature’s body, all shrieking and gibbering in hate.

Like some titanic beast, the entity heaved itself up out of the lake, lashing out with tentacles to seize onto the trees. A mouth as big as a cave formed, suddenly splitting open – countless rusted sword and spear blades dripping like rotten fangs.” (p. 131)

The other seems much nicer but is equally dangerous. For the first time, two of the Spirit Hunters fall prey to the yōkai. They must be rescued by the other two, plus a new ally.

In “Tenth Encounter: Stealer of Skins …”, one of the three Sacred Treasures necessary to invest a new Emperor is stolen. The Spirit Hunters are charged with quietly retrieving it. They track it to a large monastery. Two of its monks have been replaced by deadly mamono – monsters – who have killed and skinned them to impersonate them. The Spirit Hunters must unmask the false monks before they can get back the stolen treasure.

In “Eleventh Encounter: Tears of Ice”, the four venture into the snowy mountains of the Sacred Isles because Sura wants a winter holiday. They come to a small village along a mountain pass that has a hot-springs bath house, the Inn of Mists, for a week’s rest. But the inn’s hostess is mysteriously sad, her son is horribly scarred, most of the village’s shops are dusty and empty, the villagers are reluctant to talk with any outsiders, and the local priestess is openly hostile. Sura wants to just relax, while Chiri wants to investigate what is wrong. It isn’t until one of the Spirit Hunters becomes a victim that the other three go into action against who, or what, has the village secretly terrorized.

Spirit Hunters. Book 3, Tails High (cover by R. H. Potter and interior art by Voracious Fescue) will be enjoyed by readers of the first two. Each book is basically standalone, so those who haven’t read the first two don’t need to. Kuno and Tonbo, the two samurai, are suitably brave and invincible warriors, but it is the impish, exhibitionistic red-furred Sura (“Trust me … I’m a fox!”), and the shy but resolute white-furred Chiri with her two loyal elementals, Bifuuko (an air elemental that looks like a dragonfly) and Daitanishi (an earth elemental resembling a small rock with eyes) that the fantasy reader comes for. The reader will not be disappointed.

– Fred Patten