Kij Johnson's first novel is an expansion of her Sturgeon-award-winning short story. It is a quiet, rather slow-moving story of three weak, unhappy people. It's based on the Japanese folk legends of "kitsune," foxes, which are rumored to have the ability to turn into people, especially beautiful women.
Yoshifuji, finding himself out of a job for the season, decides to move back to his country home, taking his wife, Shikujo with him. Once there, a young fox, Kitsune, sees Yoshifuji and falls in love with him at first sight, developing the irresistible urge to follow and pursue him, driven to great lengths to become human so that she has a chance that he will love her.
Yoshifuji is depressed, full of malaise, with no energy to pursue his career – or anything. Shikujo is also depressed, feeling constricted in her society and mildly unhappy with her marriage. (She also has a seemingly inexplicable hatred of foxes.) Kitsune is most dissatisfied of all, not to mention self-centered, as she pursues her "love" with no regard for Yoshifuji himself, his wife, or her own family's well-being.
Having flawed, human characters can certainly improve a novel. But I found all three main characters annoying and unsympathetic. I also think the book would have worked better if it was set in a Nippon-esque fantasy world rather than specifically in Heian-era Japan. Johnson obviously did a lot of research on the time period, adding in many period details – but I didn't feel that the ‘mindset' really fit the place and time. The words and thoughts of the characters often seemed, to me, to betray a modern perspective (with criticism implicit) of the society of the time, rather than coming from within that society. For example, in a society where it was customary for servants to always be present, a character would not feel the need to comment on the constant presence of those servants and muse on the nature of being alone. It would be taken for granted. There are many other such bits – comments on the place of women in society, the ‘instincts' of animals, the role of a wife, etc, all of which I felt betrayed a non-period attitude. I felt like the message of these folktales had been changed, to the point where this is more a retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid' with Japanese trappings, than a true Japanese tale.
Also, in the book, Shikujo must mention over a dozen times how, "in the tales, foxes are always evil." This is not the case (although yes, the tales often end in tragedy). Still, (according to wikipedia) "Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki argues that the Japanese regarded kitsune positively as early as the 4th century A.D." There were shrines to fox spirits, where people left offerings. Also, a fox who could change shape gained this ability through enlightenment gained over a long life (often 100 years). In contrast, the Kitsune of the novel is less than a year old, and is decidedly non-enlightened.
All that said, the book was well-written, and had a particularly well-done, powerful ending.