Spirit Hunters Book 4: Shadow of the Oni, by Paul Kidd – review by Fred Patten
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Spirit Hunters. Book 4: Shadow of the Oni, by Paul Kidd . Illustrated.
Morrisville, NC, Lulu.com/Perth, Western Australia, Kitsune Press, February 2017, trade paperback $22.31 (310 pages), Kindle $6.99.
Paul Kidd began his Spirit Hunters novels with Book 1: The Way of the Fox in September 2014. He has followed it up with Book 2: The Open Road in May 2016, and Book 3: Tails High in September 2016. Now here is Book 4: Shadow of the Oni. Like the last two books, this has a cover by R. H. Potter and interior art by Voracious Fescue.
The Spirit Hunters series is set in the Sacred Isles, a fantasy world of traditional Japanese mythology roughly in the Heian era, about 900 or 1000 A.D., with all the yōkai (supernatural spirits) of that world: obake, kappa, oni, tengu, and so on. The Spirit Hunters are four freelance ghostbusters who wander throughout this realm, slaying or otherwise exorcising the evil yōkai: 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. Chiri’s two familiars, Daitanishi the air elemental and Bifuuko the rock elemental, accompany them.
Sura and Chiri, and any other animal-people who the quartet meet, are what make these books worth reading by furry fans. They 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.
While the first three books are basically light adventures, Book 4 is the darkest yet. It begins with “Twelfth Encounter: Shackles of Honour”, which opens with thirteen straight pages of grim battle, slaughter, blood, and death. A decade later, the four Spirit Hunters take refuge from a rainstorm in a long-abandoned shrine:
“‘Do you sense something, Chiri san?’
The rat gave a shiver.
‘I do not like this place.’ Chiri drew her robes about her shoulders. ‘There is a scent of old bones …’
‘This shrine was important once.’ Kuno looked at the expensive cedar pillars and beams – the towering ceiling. ‘Why would a shrine be left totally abandoned? Surely the entire priesthood could not have been destroyed?’
The altar had once been tightly bound by prayer ropes. They now lay charred, severed and decayed. Sura searched and found a carved wooden charm – weirdly bubbled and corrupted. She looked at it with an incredulous chill.
‘This is a ward against Oni!’
Tonbo knelt. He, too, could feel the colder air concentrated just ahead. The huge man kept carefully ready poised at Sura’s side.
‘What is it?’
Sura lowered her guard – her eyes fixed on the empty space just ahead of her. She moved with an almost gentle care.
‘There’s a ghost here….’ She held out a hand, fingers spread, sensing the ebb and flow in the darkness. ‘It’s weak. It’s trying to manifest to us.’
Kuno remained at the ready, sword poised.
‘Is it dangerous?’
‘It’s too weak to manifest properly.’ Sura was deeply interested, and filled with compassion. ‘I can feel it. It’s trying hard. It wants to speak.’
Suddenly the ghost sagged, as though a terrible memory had flooded into her. She sank down, lost and hollow. She stared at Sura, utterly blank with shame.
‘Know then that it is gone. This shrine failed in duty. The Oni’s blood was stolen.’
The fox felt her ears rise. She moved very quietly careful not to distress the ghost. Sura tilted her head, listening intently.
‘Who stole it, Honoured Ghost? Who took the Oni’s blood?’” (pgs. 33-35)
Sura swears to complete the shrine’s long-lost mission. But how can the Spirit Hunters fulfill an old duty against adversaries that were powerful enough to kill all the priests and temple maidens of this shrine?
“Chiri leaned forward, quietly stroking Bifuuko in her lap.
‘But surely, Sura san, the Oni are forever barred from the mortal realm?’
‘Forever.’ Sura kept her hand upon her spear. ‘But any remnant – any taint will be a thing of purest evil.’
Kuno seemed perfectly satisfied.
‘Forgive me, Sura san – but is that not what we fight in any case?’
‘No. We have never faced anything tainted by Oni.’
Sura turned. She drew in a long, slow breath, focusing her thoughts.
‘Oni are not spirits. They are demons – beings of fantastic power who live in a realm of their own. A blighted land of suffering and rage. They are masters of maho – the magic of blood, death and annihilation.’” (pgs. 39-40)
This is the traditional depiction of Oni; not the modern, family-friendly versions as in TV anime such as Urusei Yatsura. The Hunters’ quest takes them to an obscure, apparently nameless village that seems very ominous, yet it is under the care of Kuraika nō Saburo, a samurai who seems very virtuous. The Hunters must reconcile this. Sura and Chiri transform into their fox and rat forms to go scouting.
“The pair lay down beside their beds, shimmered and changed into their animal forms, then slipped out of their clothing.
Daitanishi pushed open the sliding door that led out into the inner garden. Sura stuck her fox muzzle out into the night beyond, seeing lights still on in the rest of the house. But the doors were all closed and the garden was empty. White rat and fox slipped out into the damp night with Bifuuko hovering softly just over their heads. Daitanishi silently slid the door shut behind them.” (pgs. 59-60)
“Thirteenth Encounter: The Eater of Dreams” is a lighter, more traditional Spirit Hunters tale. Chiri writes as a pastime, and her works have come to the attention of the Emperor himself. “It therefore pleases the emperor to invite Nezumi Chiri to submit one play to the theatre festival of the city of Koroda, […]” (p. 117)
Chiri never intended her writings to be published, or to take part in a literary competition with four of the greatest playwrights of the Sacred Isles. She gets acute stagefright, but an invitation from the Emperor amounts to a Command Performance; especially with Sura to make sure Chiri does not pass up this opportunity. The Spirit Hunters find Koroda to be overflowing in a lively literary and theatrical festival. The city even has several animal-spirits:
“As they reached an avenue lined with flowering loquat trees, the houses became even grander. Animal spirits enlivened the streets with their colourful dress and tails. As the Spirit Hunters moved onwards along a busy street, they passed a gaggle of cheerful Tanuki spirits drinking in a tea house. A cat spirit samurai walked elegantly past, sunk in conversation with high ranking officials. Patrons at restaurants and people on the streets all took interest as the Spirit Hunters walked by. The strange travelers with their weapons, armour and floating elementals were a colourful sight, even in Koroda.” (p. 122)
Sura, Kuno, and Tonbo are determined to help Chiri succeed, especially after she is sneered at by supercilious literary snobs, and unnerved by finding out that one of the other contestants is a snake spirit (rats and snakes do not get along). But they gradually realize that someone or something is subtly attacking the other playwrights; and corpses drained of blood are found floating in the river. Is one of the contestants sabotaging the others, or is some supernatural force preying upon all of them?
“The serpent woman rippled and transformed into her half-and half form. Her lower body became one great, long, elegant serpent body, and her arms and skin were now covered with scales. Her elegant face still had haunted bronze-gold eyes.
Hijiki Yumio departed, slithering out to the balcony – her long body rippling. She passed by Sura and halted – frowning, but not looking directly at the fox.
‘A kitsune of the great Kitsune. An armed priestess …’ The serpent spirit looked aside.
‘Interesting …’” (p. 130)
“Fourteenth Encounter: The Sword of Blood” returns to the blasted evil of the Twelfth Encounter. Sura and the others, ridding the land of minor yōkai, come unexpectedly upon one that fights powerfully back. It tries to mask a small gateway into the spirit world created by blood magic:
“Kuno drew away, appalled. His hands flexed slowly into fists.
‘Who did this?’
Sura wearily came forward. She looked down at the body with frozen eyes.
‘Someone who wanted to open a gate. Someone who wanted power from the Realm of Dreams.’
Chiri looked away from the little body, filled with sadness.
‘Was it the obake? Did the old man do this to gain his powers?’
‘He didn’t seem bright.’ The man’s voice was grim. ‘No – this is the work of someone who knows blood magic.’
Kuno stared at the body, bitterly remembering the powers of blood magic.” (p. 228)
A gate into the spirit world has been opened, and one or more monstrous yōkai have been brought into the Sacred Isles by someone who tries to control them by blood magic. Since this is disturbingly near the Sacred Isles’ Sword Shrine, the Spirit Hunters go there.
“The Sword Shrine was the most ancient shrine in the entire Sacred Isles. It had existed since the end of the Oni War – founded by the first emperor while he was still wounded from the battlefield.” (p. 235)
It is also where Sura and Tonbo learned to become Spirit Hunters. Reiju, the Shrine’s head priestess, agrees that the opening of a gate so close to the nine-hundred-year old Shrine is ominous, and is glad to have their help in guarding it.
The reader will meet Sura’s fox Aunt Kagone, cousin Kikyo, and her irrepressible fox-spirit children. There is important background on the relationship between Sura, Tonbo, and Reiju. The encounter ends in a massive battle as the army of the Oni Lord tries to overwhelm the Sword Shrine:
“The flames’ light cast Sura’s shadow hugely onto the gorge wall. The fox figure danced and flashed, fierce and beautiful.
Kagone and Kikyo could only stare, stunned by the image.
Sura’s shadow had nine tails.” (p. 297)
Spirit Hunters: Book 4 is the first in the series to end on a major cliffhanger rather than a comfortable conclusion.
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