Translated by Andrew Bromfield, and read beautifully by Cassandra Campbell, who at least in this novel has one of the most charming and captivating voices I've ever heard, especially when she does the Russian accent. I have a feeling that if I had read this rather than had Cassandra Campbell read it to me, I might not have liked it quite so much, but this audiobook pulled me in almost from the first word even though it's not my usual cup of tea.
I'm not given to reading werewolf (or shapeshifter novels) for one thing, and neither am I a great fan of social commentary novels, and this was both), but I find something very intriguing about a werefox story, and in this particular case, I felt almost like the leading lady had used her magical hypnotic werefox powers successfully on me!
It was not all smooth-riding. Sometimes it felt a bit like the author was a little too pleased with himself, and sometimes it felt like this was a guy writing from a female perspective (which it was of course!), but for me those were so mild that they were never really an issue. Truth be told, I hope authors are pleased with themselves, because writing a novel is a lonely, intensive, and all-too-often thankless pursuit, and it bears a certain amount of self-satisfaction to have completed one, even if it's one not destined for stardom.
I read some negative reviews of this to see if I'd missed anything, but I was more impressed by what those negative (and all other reviews that I read) had evidently missed: the light treatment of a rape scene. No one mentioned that at all, which was truly disturbing.
I think if a woman had written this, we would have had a different sort of novel, but whether it would have made for a better or worse read, I can't say. Here's the rub though: if a man writes and makes the woman too much like him, he's accused of writing about a man and pretending she's a woman (man-with-tits syndrome), whereas if he makes the woman more traditionally feminine, he's accused of making her traditionally feminine! You can't win, so my advice to men writing about women and women writing about men is full speed ahead and damn the slings and arrows of outraged readers. You can't write for everybody, and most of the time you can reliably write only for yourself.
The werefox is named A Hu Li, the pronunciation of which is apparently, in Russian, an insult along the lines of 'go have sex with yourself'. Though she's Chinese, she hasn't lived in China in several hundred years, so I found it a bit short-sighted that this author was accused in one review of being mistaken in putting her last name (Hu Li) last. On the other hand, if she's not human (she's a werefox who looks like a young Chinese woman despite being two millennia old), then why would she look Chinese? This isn't explained in this novel.
Frankly, the Asians annoy me because they tend to look so young when they're really much older(!), so this discrepancy didn't bother me, but this nationality issue is one of several that went unexplored, which annoyed me even more than young-looking-but-really-not-Asians, but because the author explored so many things (and amusingly so for me), I was willing to let other things go unexplained.
Besides, she's a werefox who can change her appearance to some extent. When she becomes foxy, she typically doesn't change her appearance into that of a fox. Her only unchangeable attribute is her tail, which can change impressively, but only in size. It cannot disappear, so she has to keep it well-hidden to pass as a human.
A, who has sisters who all evidently sport names starting with English alphabet vowels (Russian has vowels, and more than in English: а, э, ы, у, о, я, е, ё, ю, и, but we don't see any names prefixed with those). Doubtlessly Chinese has vowels too, but I'm not remotely qualified to get into that. Besides, this is set in Russia where she's lived for at least two centuries, so it's really disingenuous to look outside that nation for explanations or cultural attributes.
Additionally, this was an English translation of the Russian, so maybe the vowels were translated too! We hear about her sisters occasionally, and they're just as interesting as she is, but given the werefoxes apparently cannot reproduce, how they are sisters is another thing which slipped by unexplained. Maybe all werefoxes consider themselves sisters even though they really have no gender. They just look like women; they really aren't women. Or men. But given their lack of reproductive organs, their entire existence is unexplained. They are supernatural creatures though, so I let that go, too.
A is nominally a prostitute living in modern Moscow, and preying on her clients for the energy they release during sex, which is collected in her tail. I thought this was hilarious given that one abusive term for women (at least in English) is 'tail'. This tail is ostensibly a curiously masculine organ, since it become erect (after a fashion: enlarging and 'pluming out'), but given that the penis is really just an enlarged and slightly re-purposed clitoris, it's not masculine at all when you, so to speak, get right down to it.
She uses her tail to send hypnotic suggestions to her client, making him (or her, lesbians apparently love werefoxes) believe they're having sex with her when they're really just masturbating and she's sitting off to one side reading books by Stephen Hawking. So she's paradoxically a prostitute and a virgin. Until she meets a werewolf who rapes her. How can he do this when she has no sexual organs? She has a penis catcher which is an extensible pouch underneath her tail and which is there solely for tricking males into thinking they're had penetrative sex with her. This seemed like an oddity to me, but again, she's a supernatural creature, so I didn't worry about it.
It bothered me more how accepting she was of the rape. Not only did she 'get over it' quickly, but she entered into a continuing sexual relationship with her rapist. Again, supernatural creature, but even so it was hard to read and I had mixed feelings about how that rape was depicted and wondered (as I had several times reading this), how it might have been written by a female author. I also wondered if some form of punishment was coming, and for the longest time it did not, but in the end it did, so this lent a form of justice to the horror, although there really is no meaningful justice for rape.
At the same time I tried to keep in mind that neither one, the rapist nor the one who was raped, was human. They were more animal like than human too boot. On top of this (or beneath this if you will), she had no actual sex organs, merely a flexible bag of skin expressly for containing stray penises (or large clitorises, too, I guess). This did not mitigate the rape, but it did put an unusual spin on it.
The two of them are both human-looking (at least the wolf was until he got her scent when she tried to take him to the cleaners), but they're paranormal. She rarely becomes an actual fox, and he becomes a wolf only when sexually aroused (and that;s when he loses control apparently).
This certainly doesn't make rape permissible; nothing does, but I wondered if these supernatural human-animal hybrids viewed what had taken place in a somewhat different light to we humans. Had a woman written this, I think this would have been explored and the reader would have got a lot more form it, but we were left without any exploration of it, and this was the worst aspect of this novel for me. As it was, all we had was a largely barren thought-exercise on how animals behave in the wild. Is there rape in the animal world? Yes. That much is quite clear. How do the animals view it? That's a lot less clear.
That aside, the rest of the story was entertaining and quite fascinating, The werefox was completely entrancing and I enjoyed listening to her and learning about her. The werewolf was pretty much what I expected from a werewolf, and is why I do not find their stories interesting. On the contrary: they're boring, and telling endless more stories about them brings nothing to the table at all. Werewolf story writers need to get out of the fathomless rut they're in, and you can interpret that in any way you like. But I recommend this for the easy story-telling, the fascinating werefox, and the ever-present but very subtle humor.