I picked up this book initially because the cover was interesting- and the flap copy promised a complicated supernatural story with a strong female protagonist. Frankly, I was more than disappointed.
The book fails to deliver on its premise, and cops out using cliches fairly frequently, while also failing to explore interesting plot points and furthering others that hold no interest. It’s sold as a supernatural love story, but is mostly a treatise on post-Cold War Russia, with lore and history mixed in and no discernible point. The overarching themes are vague and ephemeral, while the tangents on philosophy and history seem like unused Chekhov’s guns. Honestly, while this book seems to have garnered a lot of praise, what it really needed was a good editor. The interesting parts, the main character and the mythology of foxes, go largely unexplored. How A Hu-Li came to live in Russia, what relationship she has with her fox sisters, and her opinions of humankind, are all touched on briefly but never delved into in a satisfying way. The so-called love story was particularly disappointing, given what the book promised.
The male lead is consistently boring. He alternatively threatens and placates the protagonist, but overall is more of a villain than lover. Their first sexual encounter is him raping her- and her first sexual experience in her two thousand years of life. Later in the book, the question arises as to if she intended to tempt him into engaging with her sexually, and she certainly manipulates him plenty, but while she acts lovingly towards him in many places, he treats her as a commodity. In fact, he does not trust her with secrets, and is loyal to his country, not to her. His most disturbing actions are the rape, and at the end of the book, when he leaves her without a word. In his goodbye note, he tells her he is grateful for the service she has done for their country, but he could never be with her again, as she is over a thousand years old. He was not troubled by the age difference when he thought she was a teenager, but when she is in reality an ancient power, then he runs off. He also refuses to believe her when she tells him that he is not some all-powerful werewolf god, due to his inbuilt arrogance. He’s clearly meant to be a flawed, even troubling character, but the fact that he’s still supposed to be a valid love interest is just off-putting. The whole idea is that A’s love for him is what allows her to attain enlightenment, but when he is unworthy of that love, it feels dishonest. It’s one thing to write a flawed character who is still lovable, and still yet another to write one who is both inconsistent and underdeveloped. The character who was the most fleshed out is actually one of his coworkers, a shady guy who comes onto A Hu-Li at various times, while being threatening. He is at least a consistent character with a discernible motive.
A Hu-Li’s quest for enlightenment is interesting, but her story is forever overshadowed by the other threads of the book, to the point that it feels like an afterthought. The idea that it was love all along that she needed to find what she was looking for is so saccharine and cliched, I almost put the book down after struggling through it for so long. So much of her backstory was revealed at the end, when in order for her journey to be compelling, the reader needed to know it earlier. This shows further how disinterested the author is in his own protagonist- she’s not a person, she’s a sexual object, and a plot device. A Hu-Li remarks frequently that foxes spit out the thoughts they hear from others, and do not have opinions of their own, in the normal sense. This comes through in the writing, as while she is supposed to be brilliant, A Hu-Li is a destitute prostitute who can’t look out for herself, despite being very old. The lore about her kind is scattered and unsatisfying, as though Pelevin couldn’t be bothered to put it on the page.
Frankly, it reads as though Pelevin wrote the bones of an interesting story and then covered them up with a bunch of socio-political drivel. I read the whole book because I wanted to see what happened at the end, but I feel like every moment I spent reading it was a waste of time. Reading it just made me angry- not just how poorly written it was, but the derogatory language used towards both trans and gay people, and lightly veiled racism. I’m always hesitant to read books about sex work written by men, ever since I read the drab Debbie Doesn’t Do it Anymore, but this was a new low. If I could eternal sunshine of the spotless mind this book out of my head, I would.