Young adult urban fantasy gets a jolt of diversity with Wicked Fox by Kat Cho. In this K-drama inspired tale, two teens fight against a host of magical odds, a task made more difficult as they develop feelings for each other. People they trust betray them, and their enemies might not be opponents after all—nothing ends up being as straightforward as they initially thought. Action? Check! Mystery? Check! Romance? Triple check!
Gu Miyoung has just moved to Seoul after many years away. New school, new students, new house, same old life. After the hell of her last school, all she wants to do is slide through her last two years of high school without making any waves. Unluckily for Miyoung, her plan is ruined before it even starts when a boy named Ahn Jihoon catches her becoming a gumiho (nine-tailed fox) and killing a dokkaebi (goblin) in the woods. Worse, during the fight her yeowi guseul (fox bead, basically her soul) is yanked out of her body leaving her vulnerable to humans.
Jihoon is the opposite of Miyoung. He’s lazy and careless but amiable and welcoming. He’s drawn to Miyoung in a way he can’t explain, and no amount of her ignoring him can make him stop thinking about her. As their fates are tangled together by scheming shamans, manipulative parents, overprotective friends, and one particularly irritating dokkaebi, a romance for the ages springs up around them. Soon both their lives are threatened by enemies on all sides, but if they can’t find a way to deal with Miyoung’s misplaced yeowi guseul then there’s a good chance they’ll both be dead before the others can try to kill them. The only way to survive is to make an impossible choice: who has to die so the other may live?
Wicked Fox is exactly the kind of young adult urban fantasy fiction I love. My childhood was dedicated to daytime soap operas, my teens and early twenties on CW/WB primetime dramas, and my thirties rewatching those teen faves and binging new ones. Contemporary settings are fine, but science fiction and/or fantasy are better. Give me aliens declaring their love to humans and vampire slayers dating vampires and I’ll be there for every episode, every season, regardless of the quality of the show or its actors.
Although Wicked Fox is closer to a K-drama than a Western teen soap, there’s a lot in common between the two genres. The fantasy element is important, but the crux is family and relationships. Characters fall in and out of love, family tensions run high, friendships are tested. And that’s what makes this novel so much more than your standard YA urban fantasy.
Both Miyoung and Jihoon are caught between family obligations and personal desires, absent fathers and isolated mothers, wanting to reach out and wanting to run away. They know what it’s like to watch a beloved parent push them away and to fear being rejected like that again. Because of that, Miyoung is a challenging protagonist. She isn’t easy to like, which is kinda the point. And it’s why I love her so much. After everything she’s been through, after everything her mother’s put her through, of course she isn’t affable and open. She’s secretive and hard-headed and as myopic as her mother because that was how she was raised. Likewise, Jihoon helps those in need, is selfless, and aims for strict mediocrity because he learned early on that was the easiest way to get by. Their approaches are different but their goals are the same—to have few emotional attachments so it won’t hurt as much when the people they love inevitably leave. Miyoung and Jihoon come together as damaged and bitter people, but they don’t fix each other. Instead, they fix themselves. Theirs is a romance built on companionship and trust rather than passion and appearance.
Cho handles character definition and development deftly. Everyone has interiority and depth no matter how insignificant their role in the main plot. That nuance isn’t just apparent in Miyoung and Jihoon, either. Their families aren’t plot devices but fully realized people with their own complicated narratives. No one is wholly good or evil, although they might think they’re only one or the other. Cho doesn’t let her characters off the hook for their toxic behaviors or poor choices, but she does give them each a chance to explain why they do what they do. They have their reasons—or perhaps they’re really just excuses—that are meaningful to them, even if not to anyone else. And those choices and reasons are rooted in personal traumas. One character tries to kill Miyoung because they are furious about her mother’s past misdeeds while another goes after her because they believe she’s a vicious monster who needs to be stopped to save the rest of the world. It’s skillful, detailed work that isn’t necessarily apparent from a surface-level read.
Full of heart and heat, Wicked Fox is the perfect summer read. If this charming yet emotionally charged novel doesn’t win you over with the supernatural mystery or fraught family drama then the sweeping romance will. With sharp dialogue, keen description, vivid worldbuilding, and enchanting mythology, Kat Cho’s debut novel is one of the most fun YA books I’ve read all year. I’m gonna need that sequel ASAP.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.