The Fox's Mask - Anna Frost
I'm so very lucky to have gotten a free e-copy in order to give an honest review. My full review with a guest post from Anna Frost plus a link to a giveaway is now live on my blog:
The Broke Book Bank

I was immediately hooked in from page one.

The Fox’s Mask uses historical Japan (around the 1600s) as a loose basis for a fantastical tale involving samurais, ninjas, fighting monks, shifters, demons, spirits and, my personal favorite, dragons. Seriously, the dragon part had me deliriously happy to the point of tearing up on page 22. I also have a soft spot for shifters. No, no one can really explain away the extra/less body mass but I don’t care. It’s my one blind spot in my nitpicky everything must be internally logical self. Come on, turning into an animal at will and in control is one awesome thing. When I say it’s loosely based it’s because the author what authors do - if they don’t like it, they change it. I admittedly love how things have been changed, i.e. there’s an emperor instead of an shogun and the women are more free socially speaking. There’s also realistic little details that I am so glad is included because I’ve wanted it in other books, like how tearing off pieces of clothing to make bandage isn’t easy or comes automatically in neat strips of the right size.

GLBT fiction isn’t just for those who are GLBT and it isn’t all erotica. This YA tale fits all the criteria for the “clean” identifier. The romance is sweet, new, the first for the characters and has all the “D’awwing” blushing moments people look for in YA romance.

I love how there’s strong women working within the limits of society and sometimes outside it. I love how it explores gender, not in the lecture you way, or the textbook way but just making you think about it using examples in a fictional setting. I love how it shows the myriad of ways gender roles and expectations wreak havoc on lives.

Characters:

The characters and the plot is my favorite aspects of the book. They are each dynamic and compelling. They make you want to hug them or hit them. Even minor characters. It’s just really hard to talk about without including spoilers because I just want to go on and on about them. So I’ll try to keep it short and to just four main characters.

Akakiba, the main character, is easily my favorite. For all the times they made me wonder, smile, smirk, laugh and cheer. For standing up and fighting. For going their own way and coming back when needed. For making me want to scratch a fox behind the ears and stroke their fur. For making me want to be a samurai when I’ve never wanted that before.

Sanae - Oh, little sister of Akakiba. Impish, impervious, impetuous and (ccc-combo breaker) curious to a fault. I’m wondering if stubbornness just runs in Akakiba family or through the whole clan. Maybe they should be mules instead of foxes, for how much they are willing to change. Though change they do. Easily my second favorite character. To say I can’t wait for her part of the story to continue the story is an understatement to say the least.

Yuki, the brash, wants to prove something, and naive young apprentice, whose character progression I’m curiously watching to see if he makes me smack him or hug him. As it is, I was cycling through responding to him with ‘D’aww’’s and “Omg, you dumb oaf” but in a friendly sort of way. He’s the friend who is clueless about things regarding themselves and you feel just needs your guidance to do what you think is best the right thing. Still love them, and enjoy their company but damn do they need to just get their act together already!

Jien, the womanizer monk. That sounds so contradictory. I honestly don’t like this type of character, whose epitome is Charlie Sheen, because they usually come with everyone (especially a romantic interest) desperate to change them. To unveil that golden heart supposedly buried under all that shit. At least in with Jien that doesn’t seem to be case and gets more flak for his despicable actions than support. (“Boys will be boys” UGH. Good thing that’s not included here.) I’m totally with Akikaba about Jien. Should’ve left him on the mountain, lol. Don’t get me wrong, Jien does some good things and isn’t generally a terrible person. Okay, so he isn’t useless and I’m actually glad he has my character’s back. He’s terribly obnoxious though which gets on my nerves and I want to beat him with a stick off a certain character that deserves better.

Akakiba is the main character but isn’t the sole perspective. There’s different points of view shown in third person omnipresent, which I couldn’t get enough of. The overall voice doesn’t change much from person to person but what they notice, think and feel does so it’s not hard to distinguish one from the other. Usually, I’m all for dramatic changes in writing from perspective to perspective but that critique doesn’t come into play here. I don’t really care about the overall voice/writing doesn’t change, because it comes off as very gender neutral, which I think is necessary for this book and certain aspects of it to come off correctly. The other thing I love about changing perspectives is when two characters view the same moment differently and there’s several incidents of that here that’s wonderfully insightful.

The Plot:
OMG, did I love this part. I’m loving all the different twists, reveals and am so curious to see it continued. There’s so much here and I really can’t say much, otherwise it would ruin the experience. There’s no way i want to do that! Even when I thought it done, when it was all set to end, I was thrown into the last chapter that really makes me want to follow. It’s just so different and intriguing. I have no idea where it’s going and there’s so many wonderful possibilities.

Seriously, fantasy fans readers tired of the obvious? Read this book. It bends in ways I hadn’t thought of or read before that makes me go, “Why didn’t anyone else think of this?”.

The Setting:

This isn’t palaces and royalty type of fantasy. This is little villages, woods, traveling and the basics rather than the grandiose. This is one of the few (total count: 2 places) where I’d like more from The Fox’s Mask. Not in changing the setting, just more descriptions. While reading I was able to visualize it well based on what was here and the other historical Japanese fiction I’ve read. I was more concerned about the characters anyways. My view completely narrowed to just the characters and I was totally engrossed. Sitting down to write the review is when I realized how sparse the descriptions and details were for the larger picture.

I know that sounds just terrible. But it isn’t! The characters really are the main focus and failure to expand on setting isn’t a fatal flaw. Usually in fantasy that’s a huge mark down because fantasy is all about creating whole new worlds. Admittedly, if one has no idea or knowledge of historical Japan this part may prove more lackluster or frustrating.

In The Fox’s Mask case, this is different for me because 1. it’s basically Japan around the 1600’s and I have some idea of the time; 2. the fantasy part is more about shifting, dragons, demon and spirits - all of which gets explored and expanded on more so than the setting; and finally 3. personal preference. Well, that’s the thing some people like flowery, purple-y prose, while I’m all for details that aren’t bogged down by long windedness. I’d prefer more simplistic than more superfluous. Which is just another reason why I’m satisfied with The Fox’s Mask.

While the descriptions of surroundings outside necessity are sparse, the things immediately in the character’s purview are given great treatment. Still not flowery or in depth but what is there works perfectly, for my mental image, general impression of the time/place and for the character perspective. Like the use of straw beds, talking about paths in the woods, the snaking through back alleys, the money and individual rooms. These little tale tell details filled my much needed detail fiene fix.

Other:

I am a cover lover and luster. There’s books on my TBR list and that I’ve read completely for just the cover. Unfortunately, The Fox’s Mask doesn’t currently inspire that feeling from me. It’s a completely shallow complaint I know, but I love covers good enough to be a poster. I’m not really a movie person and TV is mostly background noise to me but books are my thing. Book posters can cover my walls like a tween obsessed with Bieber and I’d be a happy camper.

I saw this in other reviews and just wanted to clarify about the Japanese words being italicized. That’s actually the standard convention to italicized words from another language. It’s not like something the author just decided to do or anything. I get how it made others think of textbooks and may be unusual for those who haven’t read a book that uses this technique, that’s just more of a problem with the genre standards than specifically with this book.

If you’d like to check examples, you can look through the Amazon’s first pages on these books to see the convention at work:
The Wayword Moon by Janice Weizman
Stormdance by Jay Kristoff