Monday, May 02, 2011

Parks, Heavenly Fox (2011)

Richard Parks, The Heavenly Fox. PS Publishing, 2011. Pp. 73. ISBN 978-1848631502. £11.99.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

I feel I've lost out because the review copy of this novella was in PDF format—since the cover art is so striking, I would have liked to have seen it rendered in print. I approached this book with great interest as I find the early Chinese folktales and Taoist / Buddhist philosophy that are the foundation for this story fascinating. And it didn’t disappoint. The Heavenly Fox is a beautifully written tale. Its lyrical style conveys the characters in vivid detail, while revealing a compelling plot rooted in the beautiful world of mythical ancient China.

It tells the story of Springshadow, a fox spirit is three days away from her 1,000th birthday—the day she will achieve immortality. She has achieved her long life by using the chi of her lovers; and it is the chi of her current partner, Zou Xiaofan that propels her into everlasting life. Springshadow has no compunction about doing this and when Guan Shi Yin, the Goddess of Mercy tells her that Zou still loves her, Springshadow still shows no remorse. But then what I like to call ‘vampire syndrome’ kicks in; Springshadow starts to realize that forever can be bleakly vast. She goes on a quest through different realms of reality to find answers and meets marvellous characters along the way.

I respected and admired Springshadow’s character. A strong female lead, she pursues her goals with searing focus, and in doing so learns the true nature of happiness. Springshadow grows from the loss she experiences, making her a very relatable character. Although her life-prolonging actions suggest an Elizabeth Báthory-type carnage, Springshadow only killed when necessary: “Xiaofan was the last human I used for my own purposes, but he was hardly the first. It was only through my own forbearance that I managed to take what I needed without killing anyone before now. I am sorry for Xiaofan. It would have been pleasant to complete my mission without taking any life at all, but I did what I had to do, and there’s the end of it.” (10)

I enjoyed the notion of a witch as female archetype; a powerful alchemist. The descriptions of Springshadow’s witchcraft are sumptuous: “Then, when all was ready, she worked the final magics that all foxes knew and converted the yang essence into the Golden Elixir, which she drank while it was still hot.” (9) The archetype of the Goddess, in the form of Guan Shi Yin also plays a strong role, making this novella a real homage to female empowerment—it is the female characters that drive this narrative. I enjoyed the way the goddess did not judge Springshadow’s actions—her concept of morality encompassed all aspects of the situation. Buddhist concepts such as the Law of Karma are also nicely explained; Parks is adept at simplifying complex philosophical concepts.

There are examples of very fine writing in the novella, my favourite was the moment of Springshadow’s apotheosis: “The expansive feeling she had before was nothing compared to this. She felt at once like Springshadow greeting the dawn on her one-Thousandth Birthday and the dawn itself, spreading to encompass the world and everything around it... She was all those things and becoming more all the time. She was exhilarated. She was terrified.” (17)

Other characters in the novella suggest that because she is a fox, Springshadow has no conscience. But there are hints from the beginning of the book that this is not the case. So when she does change, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, the story raises interesting questions on what an inherent nature is and how permanent are the characteristics we attribute to it? The novella lends valuable insights on how change is always possible: “Changing what you are requires reentering the field of time. Even gods can’t do it, only mortals. That’s what makes them greater than any god.” (43)

As Springshadow explores the Celestial City she grows disillusioned and disappointed with its similarity to the world she left behind. The encumbrance of immortality is foreshadowed by Springshadow’s thoughts on the awareness she has developed over the centuries: “While she had cherished the gift of awareness when it had come to her on her one-hundredth birthday, over the years it had become more a burden than anything.”(12)

The narrative is often sardonic, bordering on laugh out loud funny. There are too many examples to cite, but here’s one that illustrates the latter: “She would be nothing less than a goddess. Springshadow had never been a goddess before. She could hardly wait to try it.” (12) There are some other lovely features, such as the personification of the ‘little golden cloud’ that Springshadow travels on, like a magic carpet. As she enters the Hell of the Hungry Ghosts, the little golden cloud is too frightened to follow her. I was also amused by the Guide to being a Heavenly Fox, aka “The Den and Burrow Guide to Immortality,” that is quoted from on the first page and referred to throughout.

Parks does a wonderful job of creating a story that is as beautiful as the philosophy that underpins it, while using clever characterisation to bring the story fresh and up to date. It culminates in a love story that is reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The novella reads like a fairytale—it’s a gorgeous fable with a lot of heart. It was a pleasure to read, not to mention review. I will certainly by reading more of this author’s work in future.

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