The White Jade Fox, by Andre Norton
8/10 for Andre Norton fans, 7/10 for non-Andre Norton fans
I grew up on Andre Norton. I could probably reel off a dozen titles I read of hers off the top of my head: Year of the Unicorn (still one of my favorites), The Jargoon Pard, The Zero Stone, Uncharted Stars, The Plague Ship, Quag Keep, Fur Magic, Dragon Magic, Star Ka’at, Octagon Magic, and the two sequels to “Plague Ship” and “Star Ka’at.” Okay, I missed a couple titles–the point is, she was one of my two favorite SF authors growing up. So it seems odd, given my later preference for foxes, that I had never heard of this title before stumbling across it in a Seattle used bookstore.
It’s the early-1800s story of Saranna, arriving in Baltimore after her mother’s death to meet her brother, who through an odd quirk of marriage, is actually old enough to be her father–literally: his daughter Honora is more or less Saranna’s age, and is immediately set up as the opponent. Saranna soon finds herself at Tiensin, the estate of her grandfather(?), a ship’s captain obsessed with China. He brought back a number of artifacts from China and has willed them to his granddaughter by a different branch of the family, young Damaris.
Damaris knows all the secrets of the estate. She doesn’t trust Honora, but Saranna soon wins her confidence. As she uncovers the secrets surrounding the artifacts and the strange foxes that haunt the estate, she must fend off the unwelcome advances of the housekeeper’s brother and cope with Honora’s scheming. Fortunately, Damaris knows how to marshall the ancient secrets to help them both.
If you like Andre Norton, this is a terrific example of her work. She does do character and description well, and her specialty is this kind of world: all normal and usual, with just a little bit of magic (or an unexplained alien) to introduce problems. But the problems are always those of the characters; the magic just dresses them up well. Even if you can see where this book is headed (and you can), the ride is still enjoyable, and she (surprisingly) stops short of the stereotypical romance novel ending.
It’s a good read if you can find it; unlike some of her books which remain in print, like the Witch World books or the Magic books, this one’s only available used.