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When Fox is a Thousand

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  493 ratings  ·  84 reviews
When Fox is a Thousand is a lyrical, magical novel, rich with poetry and folklore and elements of the fairytale. Larissa Lai interweaves three narrative voices and their attendant cultures: an elusive fox growing toward wisdom and her 1000 birthday, the ninth-century Taoist poet/nun Yu Hsuan-Chi (a real person executed in China for murder), and the oddly named Artemis, a y ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published September 1st 2004 by Arsenal Pulp Press (first published September 1st 1993)
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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Allison Hurd
A fascinating, lyrical book that blends a Taoist mystery, 90s PNW, and folklore. Beautiful, sure and complex, it was well worth the read, although I'm afraid I felt a bit left out of some of the story.

CONTENT WARNINGS: (view spoiler)

Things to love:

-The prose. There were some absolutely delicious sentences in here.

-The concept. Sapphic historical fiction meets fairytal
A rich, engrossing read. Although I sometimes struggled to follow all of the connections between characters, I loved the storytelling style. I really enjoy stories that tie folklore into the protagonists' lives in this way, and it is fabulous to see a story like this that is so full of queer women.

Second read: Still fabulous and such an important book about queer women. The theme of love and betrayal between women who are struggling in different ways with patriarchy and racism is very powerful.
Kimberly Read
May 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The poetry of this novel is superb. I really enjoyed Larissa Lai's unique vocabulary. She uses words or phrases in unexpected combinations and I love that. I sometimes felt I could reach out and touch her descriptions - "the eroded hills have drunk all but the last drops of blue from the sky." I also appreciate her in-your-face presentation of difficult issues such as violence and war, race and discrimination, sexual preferences, feminism, cultural mores and interpersonal relationships. The stor ...more
Feb 19, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy, ebook
Worth a reread

This is a fascinating book. A culture relatively far removed from my own (only Vancouver in the 90’s was familiar, but not the people who populated this story), culture and mythology that is unfamiliar. Lai writes in beautiful, evocative prose full of startling synesthetics. It is an uncomfortable book, full of people you can’t quite like, but are nevertheless compelled to continue following.

At a certain point I felt the lack of connection between the 3 POVs had gone on too long a
Jun 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I came across this book whilst on a magic realism expedition. I'd never heard of it before, nor of Lai, so you can imagine my sheer surprise when this book ticked so many boxes for me. Mythology, storytelling, shapeshifting through the ages, re-storytelling, women who love women ...

I devoured this book on the first read, and I knew I had rushed through it, not letting the story and characters fully consume me. I read it in a second, more-dedicated reading a couple of months later. The book cons
Danika at The Lesbrary
Apr 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Short version: I don't know why this isn't considered a classic lesbian novel. It deserves way more attention. Long version: ...more
Ivana Books Are Magic
Sep 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
This novel follows three different narrations that flow toward a common source. These narrations come closer and closer together until they join in a single river that sings a profound song. Goodreads describes When Fox Turns A Thousand as a lyrical novel. I can certainly see why for its prose is indeed lyrical. The novel is written beautifully and poetically. You know, if the author was South American in origin, perhaps we would call this novel magical realism. Speaking of origin, that happens ...more
May 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sffbc-game-8s
Finally able to wrap up January's 2021 SFFBC Amazin' Eights Challenge book.

A broadly interpreted retelling of the Fox Myth from Chinese legends. Good, but my reading was too spread out to really enjoy. Much of the change/action/growth was unspoken or derived from the visible action - not my style of writing, so it was difficult (for me). But a great fit for others out there.

I have to finish this review later, but will need this quote from the afterword:
"Within the processes of race and racializa
Not my cuppa. This had so many elements that I thought I would love — three separate and entertwining narratives! mythological fox trickster spirits! university students in Vancouver! lesbian women of colour! poetesses in ancient China! — but instead I found myself bored and skimming pages in an attempt to get it over with.

I don’t know if it was my current mood or if it’s just that the lyrical, poetic prose and lack of plot ground on my nerves and wasn’t to my taste. I can see what the author wa
22 Jan 2021

Objective v. Subjective Rating: 3 stars v. 1 star

Reason: I can recognize why this would be a book a lot of people would love, I swear. I'm just not going to be one of them. DNF @54%.


1. Well, that was a bit of a disappointment.

2. I didn't come into this book with high hopes because I knew it was going to be more literary and experimental than it was storytelling. I did hope it would get better with time, but it mostly just feet like more and more of the same.

3. This story is
Jan 11, 2021 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: students examining third-wave feminism
I wish I had read the Afterword first. I knew this was published in 1993, and the book is very much a product of the early transition to third-wave feminism. But it felt very unpolished, and I might have enjoyed this more if I had been prepared to read a debut novel that was trying to accomplish half a dozen things at once. The plot and characters seem like an afterthought, overshadowed by social critiques peppered throughout the book that somehow feel too broad, too narrow, and conflated with e ...more
Dec 21, 2012 rated it really liked it

The subject matter was interesting and I loved the Fox Spirit Mythology, but felt the character development of the 9th century Poetess was very incomplete. Most of the story revolves around Artemis, the young student living in Vancouver. She is not particularity likeable, but I believe it was the author’s intention to portray her this way. Her experiences are very typical of people in their early twenties in that era, living on their own for the first time. I personally would have liked more det
Definitely interesting. I read this book because a classmate in my Third World Women Writers class recommended the author. I was interested in the fox spirit mythology. I was also interested in reading books that dealt with some issues of gender.

My favorite voices (out of the three) were the fox and the poetess. I wasn't so interested in Artemis' (so much drama...) but it wasn't terrible. It was hard to get through at times (like I said, drama!) but I'm glad I read it. There were definitely fasc
Elizabeth Hunter
Dec 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: uncat, aoc
This is a fascinating book, told in three narrative strands which follow a poet of ancient China, a young woman in modern Vancouver and the fox spirit who haunts them both. The modern section was my least favorite, mostly due to the passivity and diffidence of the protagonist, but the writing was well done and I really liked what the author was doing in trying to bridge the Chinese-Canadian gap. This reminded me of Charles de Lint's work, while being much more solid. ...more
May 16, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: didnt-finish
Fifty pages into this book, I was enjoying it. There are three different time periods in the book, signposted by beautiful visual prints of a fox, a lantern, a book. The fox signifies the titular animal, a trickster demi-deity who wants to turn one thousand years old because then she can really do some impressive supernatural stuff. The lantern is the story of a girl about a thousand years ago in China, who meets a mysterious woman, gets married into an unusual family. The book take place in 199 ...more
Challenging but worthwhile read with beautiful writing.
Super satisfied thus far with my recent decision to read nothing but postmodern lesbian fiction for the rest of my natural life (this is a Seminal Lesbian Novel and it’s insane that there’s only 50-odd reviews for it on here when it’s been out for over 20 years now)
Jan 12, 2021 rated it it was ok
Oh dear, I really wanted this one to work out better than it did, but in the end I just couldn’t connect to the characters, and that made this a struggle to get through.

What I liked:
The representation. I could relate to the immigrant experience, especially of a generation not belonging to one culture nor another. Speaking a language with an accent, or people assuming you don’t speak at all. Especially for its time, I appreciated the intersectionality of having a cast of queer women of color.

Jun 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
What a beautiful, meaty read. I haven't read something with so much intent in every word in a very long time. Despite being rooted in mythology, even paranormal, the one word that describes this entire book is: human. There are no heroes, just people. There's no blinding epiphany, just life and life's uncertainties. History isn't beautiful when it's told as humanity created it. All of this illustrated with some of the most beautiful imagery I've encountered in a long time.

Multiple slower rereads
Sep 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
this was very queer, very complex and even confusing but very engrossing all the same. the three entwined stories stretching across space and time explore Chinese womanhood and sexuality and the haunting of past traumas in a fresh take on the take on the lore of the fox spirit who seduces unsuspecting scholars.
Jan 01, 2021 added it
If the fox was with the poetess in the 9th century (800s) and it’s now the 1990s, wouldn’t the fox already be a thousand? (Also this is a publishing issue but blurb on the back of the book refers to Diane, Artemis, and Ming as American women and the book is set in Vancouver??)

Not my fave Larissa Lai, clearly a first book, but I did enjoy it!
I'll probably have to read this again. I liked the parallel story threads, but definitely think that I'll see more on a reread, possibly as intended by the author. ...more
May 01, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a very thoughtful and imaginative account of Vancouver hipsters in the late 80s. Who knew Vancouverites were so hip, artsy, and pretentious even back then? In the novel, there are video artists, all manner of LGBT, photographers, muses, and bad girls sleeping with all genders. We didn't know Vancouver was so Keith Haring-ish and British punk rock at that time. We think of Vancouver as more hippie than Haring. Well, now we know better. This novel is a very sensitive and in-depth view of a ...more
Mar 12, 2012 rated it liked it
Like the fox of Eastern mythology, this book is rather mysterious. It lacks a traditional plot with a clear climax, protagonist, and antagonist, yet the writing style and the realism of the characters managed to hold my interest to the end.

The story has three voices: a fox nearing age 1000 speaks some parts, a Chinese poetess who lived around 1000 years ago speaks others, and a third-person narrator in the late 80s recounts the life of a Chinese-Canadian woman named Artemis in the rest. Neither
I enjoyed this book - it was like writing three short stories that might or might not have some relation to each other. The fox is closing in on a thousand years, an age when she will be able to change her form at will, rather than relying on reanimated corpses. A parallel story involves a famous, doomed 11th century Chinese poetess who is on trial for beating her servant and lover to death out of jealousy. The last member of the trio is Artemis Wong, an adopted child of Canadian parents who is ...more
Oct 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: dena
Larissa Lai is a gifted Chinese Canadian author with a refreshing approach to storytelling, especially in terms of interweaving ancient Chinese mythology with contemporary Chinese diaspora issues.

I really enjoyed her book "When Fox is a Thousand," admittedly because the Chinese myths and mythical characters came from stories my mother had told me about as a child, and because the protagonist, a 20-something Chinese Canadian trying to figure herself out, reminded me of myself at that age.

Jan 16, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sci-fi-magic
I am not sure if this is sci-fi or fiction...there are three parts to this novel: the folktale/on-going time of the fox, ninth century china, and contemporary vancouver. i have to admit i got too enraptured with the contemporary story to fully grasp the later details of the other two sections, but they were really amazingly intertwined. i had no idea this would have queer lady love happenings...turns out the fox is into that kind of thing. really good.
Rift Vegan
Oct 08, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2010
I think I should have enjoyed this book more, it had many elements that I am fascinated with -- most importantly the Asian fox myth. But I never really cared about any of the characters, and there wasn't much of a story to follow. darn it. ...more
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
loved the writing style - I usually dislike books that flit between too many characters but some how it works... I feel like its one of those books I will read again and find it to be new the next time
Jul 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: lit-fiction
This was hard for me to get and stay interested in, though I really wanted to. It seems to have it all: magical trickster foxes and lesbians. (Really, what else should you need?) But for me this lacked a spark to make it really come to life.
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SciFi and Fantasy...: "When Fox Is A Thousand" by Larissa Lai (BR) 117 88 Feb 20, 2021 01:12PM  

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Larissa Lai has authored three novels, The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl and When Fox Is a Thousand; two poetry collections, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement; and a critical book, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers' Award, she has been a fina ...more

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