A review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask (Musa Publishing, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille
It is refreshing to see a fantasy book that is set in Imperial Japan. So often, fantasy series are based on a Western Medieval archetype, inferring that this is the only forum for sword and sorcery. Anna Frost, although not Japanese herself, explores the imagery and richness of Japanese culture as a framework for her novel The Fox’s Mask. Populating her novel with Kitsune (fox spirits), healing spirits from springs, demons possessing humans, and dragons, it is clear why she chose an ancient Japanese setting for her fantasy series because it is so rich with mythical material for her to incorporate into this narrative. The framework of Shintoism works so well for explorations of the fantastic, having a general comfort with the notion that the natural world is populated not just with recognised animals, but also with a range of spiritual beings and manifestations.
Frost’s novel explores the relationship between duty and love (whether that be of a job or of a person), the social obligations that try to push people to accept familial responsibility over their own needs. Akakiba is a kitsune, able to transform from human form to fox form. He is a samurai, interested in protecting humanity from demons who would do them harm. He loves his job, and tolerates the humanity that he serves to protect… yet, his world is shaken when he is forced to take on a human apprentice, Yuki. Despite sharing years with his apprentice, he keeps secrets from him about his past, his family, and his kitsune nature. Despite his family wanting him to hold his first duty to them, he sees his primary duty as the protection of humanity, honouring his relationship to Yuki, and living the samurai lifestyle.
Yet, his choices have consequences. By not choosing to settle down and have a family of his own, he risks his clan, a people that are facing extinction as their numbers dwindle. Not only the foxes, but all spirits and otherworldly beings are beginning to dwindle, gradually disappearing from the world. The world is changing and Akakiba is faced with the notion that he may be contributing to that change by not taking a mate.
The Fox’s Mask is further enthralling because of its willingness to feature LGBT or queer characters. Characters are accepted in a large number of different relationships and love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Because the foxes are able to change shape between human and fox and change sex between male and female, they are comfortable with ambiguities of gender and sex. They aren’t stuck in the human notion that one’s born gender defines them, or that one must chose to only enter into a sexual relationship with the opposite sex… the only challenge is that they try to encourage their members to enter into relationships with the opposite sex to ensure that there are children born and that the dwindling population continues. Anna Frost’s engagement with queer subject material is complex, not allowing easy relationships, but instead inviting the reader to engage in the complexity of issues that arise from a past society that is different from our own (both because of the past setting and the fact that they are foxes).
To find out more about The Fox’s Mask, visit Musa’s website at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400