Raffles Reads: Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

By Claire Tan (20S07A) and Valerie Tan (20A01E)

Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.

Your life, or your beloved’s?

This is the dilemma that the characters of Wicked Fox grapple with—similar to hundreds of other Young Adult books, perhaps, but with a Korean mythological twist.

Written in alternating points of view from its two main characters, together with stories of the first gumiho (a nine-tailed fox from Korean mythology) interspersed between its chapters, Wicked Fox is the first in the Gumiho series by Kat Cho. Against the backdrop of modern-day Seoul, it follows Miyoung, a half-gumiho, half-human who has to devour the energy of people—and thus kill them—to stay alive. One night, she stumbles upon Jihoon, a boy her age, being attacked by a goblin. She risks revealing her true identity just to save him, but ends up losing her fox bead—her gumiho soul—in the process. This sends Miyoung and Jihoon spiralling into an adventure they can’t control, and soon they find themselves surrounded by enemies and a looming ultimatum: Miyoung’s immortality, or Jihoon’s life.

At first glance, Wicked Fox might seem unremarkable and unengaging. Its characters may not be the most enjoyable in the first half of the book, especially Jihoon. He’s introduced as the perfect little boy who gets away with everything just because he’s charming; for instance, he sweet-talks both his teacher and his halmeoni (“grandmother” in Korean) into forgiving his constant tardiness. Even though Jihoon’s total lack of situational awareness can be endearing and comical, it can also be quite frustrating at the start. Take, for instance, his attempt to talk to Miyoung on her first day in school. What better time to do it than during gym class? Definitely the most fitting time to have a conversation. And what does he want to talk about? Nothing other than the subject of Miyoung being a gumiho. That just makes matters even worse; this is clearly something she wants to keep private! And yet, Jihoon presses on valiantly anyway, landing the two of them in trouble.

Miyoung, while more tolerable, is only slightly better than her male love interest; she seems flat, and may be a bit hard to empathise with, but her backstory does arouse some sympathy. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect about Miyoung is her struggle with her need to take lives and her own morality.

Illustrations by Alexis Castellanos of Jihoon, Miyoung, and Miyoung’s mother, Yena.

Another potential issue readers might find with this book is its plain language. Cho’s writing is direct, without many (or any, really) flowery descriptions and vivid imagery. This alone is not a bad thing. But in Wicked Fox, this is reduced to bland description with excessive short, stilted sentences that fail to add flavour—for example, this sentence: “A shiver ran down his spine and goosebumps rose on his skin”. Such depictions of this world make it even harder for readers to put themselves in the shoes of the characters, much less find the interest to continue reading.

Even the pace of the book falls short in the first half; the story drags without anything of particular importance happening. The plot about trying to return Miyoung’s bead to her body in time is sidelined not only by several purposeless scenes, but also by romance between the two main characters, with a classic enemies-to-lovers trope to top it all off. And this romance, without a meaningful plot, lacks character development, serving only to set up a springboard that the two characters dive off very much later.

But one must admit that this romance is not, in fact, entirely forced; Miyoung and Jihoon’s relationship ends up developing in a way that feels natural and realistic. Miyoung is no self-insertion of the author, and Jihoon is no idealised boy crush as he may have appeared just a few chapters ago. Both these characters are flawed and human, and when they slowly realise their feelings for each other, they do not feed into each others’ insecurity, as most Young Adult (YA) novels tend to do, but instead strive to build each other up.

“I’ll go first,” Jihoon said. “I don’t think you’re pretty.”

A frown planted itself firmly on Miyoung’s face. “I thought you were going to tell me the truth.”

“I am. Your face is beautiful, but you’re empty. You never let anyone see past the surface, because you think that’s all they want to see. You’re fake and that’s not pretty.”

Credit must also be given to the parallels made between Miyoung and Jihoon’s family backgrounds that allow them to have some sort of common experience tying them together: both characters have missing parents, and someone who tries to look after them in ways that they don’t always appreciate until it’s too late.

Therefore, all things considered, the romance is not badly done; it is merely placed inappropriately in the first half of the book, which may have flowed better if more emphasis were placed on Miyoung’s bead instead.

There are, of course, other plus points to Wicked Fox besides its romance—for instance, its diversity. Incorporating Korean culture unapologetically, this book sets itself apart just through the Korean perspective its characters have, in contrast to the typical white characters portrayed in YA fiction. For those amongst us who have watched one too many K-dramas, or follow the K-pop scene religiously, this book is definitely for you. It weaves the concept of age difference and formal/informal speech seamlessly into the relationships of the characters, giving us a better understanding of Korean society and its cultural norms. And of course, the novel’s distinct use of Korean romanised words is a breath of fresh air.

Furthermore, things do start to change for the better when we hit the second half of the book. Perhaps even a bit too fast, some might contend; the conflicts and action do develop in a rather unreasonable fashion. Would you, for instance, suddenly mention the full names of your friends if you’ve been keeping them a secret for ages? That’s what happens with Miyoung’s mention of the shaman Song Nara to her (vehemently anti-shaman) mother. A scene featuring Miyoung and Jihoon also takes the reader on quite the rollercoaster ride, throwing plot twist after plot twist at them for waves of anger, and then happiness, and then anger again. These hiccups in terms of pace may trip the reader up, especially as they’ve just arrived from its considerably more stagnant, slow-moving first half; and yet, these sections are what manage to drive the plot and keep the reader eager to find out what’s coming next. The pace of the book does slow down towards the end as well, giving the reader time to catch a breath.

The conclusion of Wicked Fox, too, is one that will leave the reader wanting more. Every character is given the chance to justify themselves, and at the end of it all, one comes away able to feel and empathise with every single one of them, no matter what evil crimes they have committed or what terrible deeds they have done. There are no villains in this story, only humans (or shamans, or gumihos) who have done their utmost to keep themselves and the ones they love most safe. The strong character motivations put forth by Cho, together with the vivid descriptions that have begun to come through in the writing, are enough to make anybody want to keep reading on. An attention-grabbing cliffhanger in the epilogue also sets up well for the next book, making sure that readers will keep a lookout for its sequel, due to be published in August 2020.

Overall, if you’re a fan of simple, direct language, and are looking for a book with a romance-driven storyline, we recommend Wicked Fox. Even if you’re not charmed by the premise or the plot, the romance is definitely worth the read.

“Miyoung-ah.” Jihoon sat beside her, folding his legs beneath him. “If you die, then I’ll always remember you. That doesn’t mean I won’t live a full life. People leave us and our lives will never be the same, but if we forget them, then what does that say about how we value them?”

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