REVIEW: Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit by Jesse Q Sutanto
After inheriting a grieving fox spirit, a Chinese American boy must learn to embrace his heritage to solve the mystery of his brother’s death in Jesse Q Sutanto’s magical, action-packed middle grade fantasy, Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit.
Theo Tan doesn’t want a spirit companion. He just wants to be a normal American kid, playing video games, going to conventions, and using cirth pendants to cast his spells like everyone else. But, when his older brother dies, Theo ends up inheriting Jamie’s fox spirit, Kai.
Kai isn’t happy about this either. Theo is nothing like Jamie, and the two of them have never gotten along. But, when they realize the mysterious journal Jamie left Theo is filled with clues and secret codes, it’s clear that something strange was going on with Jamie’s internship at Reapling Corp.
But the only way onto the campus is the highly competitive “Know Your Roots” summer camp program, a celebration of Chinese and Indian cultures designed to help connect students with their heritage. Theo and Kai will have to put aside their differences long enough to honor Jamie’s last wishes, or the mystery he died for will remain unsolved forever…
Dear Ms. Sutanto,
I was excited to read something different from you – middle grade MCs vs the YA or adults of your other novels. Plus I was interested in the fantasy aspect as well as the usual BIPOC representation. I enjoyed Theo Tan and his journey to self discovery and embracing his heritage but I don’t think the overall plot is breaking any new ground.
Theo is a twelve year old boy with the usual “ahhh, man!” attitude. He loves his older brother but resents Jamie’s fox companion Kai who returns Theo’s sentiments. When Jamie tries to warn Theo about something going on at his workplace, Theo brushes everything off – until days later when the police arrive to tell the family of Jamie’s accident. After Jamie’s death, Kai returns to the spirit world. The family isn’t rich so when it comes time to conjure a spirit companion for Theo, they’re aiming for a goldfish. Things Happen and Kai ends up bonding with Theo. Neither are happy but breaking the bond costs even more.
A while later Theo remembers Jamie’s journal and decides to try and solve the problem Jamie was facing by taking part in an exploration of cultural heritage being held on the grounds of the company Jamie used to work for. Theo and Kai bicker and snark at each other but soon get the feeling that Something is Going On there. Can they solve the mystery and discover just what on Earth – or under it – is happening?
There are a lot of issues being presented and examined – some to a greater degree than others. Self identity, cultural heritage, racism, fitting in, gender workplace discrimination, grief, bullying, and jealousy are just some of these things. I can’t speak to whether these are #ownvoices for the author or how the represented individuals will view these. Theo and his fellow participants are all middle school children looking to or (initially in Theo’s case) reluctant to reconnect with the heritage of their (often) first or second generation immigrant families. Many of them have dealt with feeling “other” even though they’re American born. Part of the storyline involves types of ancient magic (Chinese and Indian) vs a kind that can be purchased (this also speaks to wealth privilege) and is widespread in the US.
Part of the issue I had with the book is baked in because of Theo’s age. He’s twelve and suddenly faced with a lot of stuff happening, much of it also making him revisit his unresolved grief at the loss of his brother. He’s sometimes a bit passive while right in the middle of what’s going on. It also takes him a while to realize some of the things happening behind the scene and catch onto the villains. I got a bit impatient with his naivete and his “but … but… you said …” disbelief when faced with the fact that people lied to him and didn’t always have his best interests at heart. But then I stopped to remind myself that he is only twelve and yeah, he’s acting like it.
Theo’s relationship with Kai is rocky to say the least. Both were jealous of how much time Jamie spent with the other and they love to snark at each other. Kai is a fox spirit and they’re known for being a bit sarcastic and full of themselves. If Kai doesn’t like something or thinks she knows better, she has no problems with ignoring a plan and going it on her own. Later in the book, she is tempted by the dark side albeit after she tried to tell Theo the danger in doing what he ordered her to do. There is also a moment when Theo, who has struggled with something, suddenly manages to spectacularly do that very something just when needed. His mangled Mandarin pronunciation both highlights how he tried to push away his heritage as well as causes some opportune and inopportune events.
The ending is one of those “all hell breaks loose” gigantic free-for-alls. Some things are tidied up and taken care of but there is obviously going to be a book #2 because of a late stage reveal. I’m not sure I’m on board with reading it as I found Theo and Kai’s enemies to friends relationship tiring after a while and am not fully convinced of the resolution. Many of the secondary characters were also not fully fleshed out. The book is certainly readable but perhaps not the best representative of this genre. C