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Book Review: 9 Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

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I've never quite understood why it is that science fiction and fantasy writers ever feel the need to create brand new worlds from scratch. It seems like such a waste of time considering the wealth of material that's at their fingertips if they were only to look into the stories of the various people of this planet. Even staying within our own culture you can find some pretty amazing stuff.

How much more fantastic can you get than a guy dying and then coming back from the dead three days later? And that's just for starters. Of course people have mined the tale of King Arthur until its been bled white, but what about the Vikings, the Greeks, and the Romans? The gods and goddesses alone could supply enough material for who knows how many books.

Of course if you wanted something a little more exotic there's always Asia and the far East. Incorporate a few figures from their stories into your books and believe me you'd have something that's as fantastical as anything that came from the most fevered imagination. Of course you'd have to make sure and do proper research so that you don't use someone else's stories inappropriately or disrespectfully.

One of the best examples of an author who's been able to incorporate bits and pieces of other cultures into his work without it feeling like appropriation or cheap exploitation is the British author Jon Courtenay Grimwood. So far I've read works of his that have integrated Islam, Japanese, and Norse mythology into his stories. (No, not all at the same time) Therefore, it didn't come as too much of a surprise that in his novel 9 Tail Fox, published in North America by Night Shade Books, he'd been able to accomplish the same feat successfully with Chinese culture.
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Set in contemporary San Francisco, the protagonist is initially Sgt. Bobby Zha, who's a second generation Chinese immigrant on his father's side and very British via his mother. When both his parents died young it was his paternal grandfather who took over his upbringing. At the time we meet him his grandfather has been long gone, but Sgt. Zha still retains the fluent, if slightly archaic, Cantonese he learned from his grandfather, and the memories of the stories he had been told of creatures like the Nine Tailed Celestial Fox.

Even so, that doesn't stop him from being surprised to see Jinwei hu of the pure white fur, nine tails, and coal red eyes, as he lies dying, spewing his life's blood onto the concrete floor of the warehouse he'd been ambushed in. After all, how often do you find out the mythical creatures of your childhood really do exist, let alone have one appear in front of you no matter what the circumstances? Of course, it could all be just an illusion, and it doesn't really matter as he's dying – isn't he? Still what did the fox mean he has only one more chance to set things right?

Telling you that the main character dies might sound like I'm spoiling the plot of the book, but since it happens in the first couple of chapters, you'd learn about yourself soon after starting to read the story. Anyway in this case death really is just the beginning and the fox was telling the truth and Bobby is being given a one last chance to set a whole number of things right, some of which date back to before he was even born. For in some ways the story doesn't even begin with Bobby Zha but with his grandfather and the early history of the Chinese in San Francisco, when the Tongs were more than just crime families.

Of course he's also going to have to figure out what the connection is between what's happening to him now as he's resurrected in the body of a coma patient named Bobby Vanberg, and experiments that were being carried out is Leningrad during World War Two. As Bobby Zha he had been investigating the disappearance of homeless people from the streets of San Francisco and the mysterious shooting of a burglar by an 11-year-old girl who doesn't appear strong enough to have lifted the gun used, let alone fired it.

Somehow his death ties in with all of these events and even though the trail is as convoluted as a pretzel he has to try and find his way through the labyrinth. He also knows that somehow or other, if he is able to get to the bottom of all this mess, he will also find a way to make things right with the people he'd hurt the first time around – especially his daughter.

One of the wonderful things about any of the books I've read by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is his ability to create a story that exists on more then one level at a time without seeming to try. In the case of 9 Tailed Fox not only has he written a great, action packed detective story full of interesting and unusual characters, he has also written a remarkable book about identity and the different ways people go about defining themselves.

Through Bobby's examination of his own life and his investigation into the crime, Grimwood gives the reader some interesting things about identity to ponder. What makes us who we are; our race, our gender, genetics, or is it something even more ethereal than that? When Bobby awakens in his new body his awareness is still that of Sgt. Zha even though he's as physically different from his former self as a cat is from a dog. So who is he?

Sgt. Bobby Zha is dead, he felt himself die, and he saw himself being buried. Yet, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary he's also alive, it just happens to be in another person's body. His first instincts are to react to people like he always has, but of course he can't because he no longer has that appearance. He has to learn how to be Bobby Zha in the new body, and in doing so begins the process of using his chance to set things right.

In the theatre there are characters in classical scripts who act as catalysts for change or that cause the action of the play to go in a certain way. In 9 Tail Fox the Jinwei hu of Chinese mythology serves that purpose. It not only gives Bobby a chance to expose his murderer and get to the bottom of why it happened – but to also make amends for his own screw-ups. But it's not easy, and he is only able to do so when he begins to change the way he treats people this time round.

For you can't just put on a new body like a suit of clothes and expect that to change who you really are underneath, it has to come from within. Through his examination of the character of Bobby Zha before and after his death Jon Courtenay Grimwood shows how we are all ultimately responsible for who we are as individuals no matter what the circumstances.

9 Tail Fox has all the attributes of what I've come to expect from a novel by Jon Courtenay Grimwood; a great story well told, characters so realistic that you see them in your minds eye right from the start, and a sub-plot that provides thought provoking insights into human nature. A book to savour from start to finish, and almost wish it would never end.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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