When I first saw this hit the shelves, I waffled for a while about whether to pick it up. On the one hand, I've been interested in Japan and books based on Japanese myths for a while, and I've hardly ever gone wrong buying a book published by Tor. On the other hand, well, it looked awfully similar to Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters, which I'd just read, and I wasn't sure how well it would measure up, and I really didn't have that much free time to be reading what looked like a fairly dense book.
What sealed the purchase was a one-word review from James Nicoll: "Wow." I figured the book had to be worth a look after that, so I picked it up. (It took me a while to get around to reading it, though...)
It's not all that similar to the Gaiman story, save on the superficial level-- it involves a female fox who falls in love with a human (if you liked the Gaiman story, though, there's a good chance you'll like this). I was right, in that it's not exactly a light read, but "Wow" is a fair description of it.
The book is set in Heian Japan (around the time when the Genji Monogatari was written), and tells the story of three characters who are profoundly unhappy with who they are and their role in the world. The story is told in three interweaving strands, each taken from the diary of one of the principal characters: the minor nobleman Kaya no Yoshifuji, sent away from the Court in disgrace, who has returned with his family to a distant country house where he and his wife lived some years earlier, who chafes against the many rules and restrictions governing proper behavior in his society; his wife Shikujo, who is all but obsessed with proper behavior, striving to be the perfect noble wife, and unhappy about finding herself exiled to the wilderness; and Kitsune, the fox woman of the title, who lives on the grounds of the (previously abandoned) Kaya estate, falls in love with Yoshifuji, and longs to become human. Each section is written in a distinctive style, and while the level of detail presented might seem a bit much for a modern diary entry, it seems fitting for a society so obsessed with the exchange of cunningly worded poems.
Following the return of Yoshifuji and his family (along with his wife and a passel of servants, he has a young son, Tadamaro), the lives and desires of the three main characters collide with disatrous consequences for all. Kitsune becomes obsessed with Yoshifuji, who in turn begins to devlop an obsession with the foxes he spots in the garden. He envies her freedom from restriction, she longs to be human, and Shikujo sturggles to hold together her perfect courtly world against the forces of love, obsession, and magic which threaten to rip it apart.
The plot moves slowly at first, lingering over the small and subtle details which so consume Japanese literature of that era, but this serves to establish a good base from which to proceed, and the tension builds nicely until about halfway through the book, when Kitsune (guided by her grandfather, who knows a surprising amount about such things) unleashes powerful magic to take on human form and snare Yoshifuji.
The book is beautifully written. Kitsune's obsession and Shikujo's desperation are almost palpable, and you can feel Yoshifuji's joy as he finds freedom in the fox magic. The background has been meticulously researched (as you can see in the "Author's Note" at the end), and the poetry is pretty good.
The various turns of the plot (which I'll try not to spoil) are handled well, from the revelations of the source of the grandfather's knowledge and Shikujo's dread of foxes to the eventual fate of Kitsune's fox family. The magic feels, well, magical-- dark forces are invoked, heavy prices paid, and everything retains that crucial air of mystery. The resolution of the story is also quite satisfactory-- the characters don't necessarily find happiness as the result of their experiences, but they do emerge from the plot profoundly changed, and with a better chance of finding happiness. One caveat would be that the ending is as blatant a cliffhanger as that in Kay's Tigana, though it feels like a natural consequence of the story, and less like it's been tacked on to make a point.
All in all, a very impressive book. It's not a whiz-bang-go-fast-and- blow-up sort of story, but it packs an emotional punch like few other books I've read. I highly recommend this book.