Born to a human father she has never met and a gumiho - a legendary nine-tailed fox - mother, Gu Miyoung walks the impossibly fine line between human teenager and mythical creature who meticulously researches wicked men and feeds on their energy to keep herself alive.
One night, Miyoung saves the life of a boy named Ahn Jihoon, and her yeowo gusul - a bead representing the essence of her gumiho power - falls out of her body. The loss of this little bead soon leads to staggeringly high stakes, because whoever holds a gumiho’s yeowo gusul controls the gumiho. And because without it, Miyoung is almost certain to die.
A modern-day fantasy thick with themes of family, friendship, forgiveness, and a smattering of romance, here’s what you can expect from Kat Cho’s debut novel, Gumiho!
A Kdrama, but less cheesy
Gumiho reads a bit like a more somber, less cutesy Kdrama. (I would also liken the vibe of it to Japanese anime Kyoukai No Kanata!) Unlike a Kdrama though, the characters lean less on unhealthy, overly-dramatic romance tropes and more on real, human connections.
Our main character is Gu Miyoung - an eighteen-year-old girl who’s half gumiho, half human. Our girl starts off alone and aloof - her coldness accentuating her ice queen-level beauty. Part of this is because she can’t get close to people because - as her full gumiho mother Gu Yena has drilled into her - it will endanger her secret. Part of it is because she won’t, because being around swirling human energies pulls on her instinct to hunt.
And part of it is because she truly doesn’t see herself as being worthy of having human friends...because she does feed on humans to stay alive.
Miyoung’s resolution to keep humans at arms’ length shatters when she crosses paths with Jihoon - a high school sophomore whose charms utterly disarm sweet old ladies and disapproving high school teachers alike. As their lives intertwine, Miyoung's supernatural problems clash with Jihoon's very real-world concerns, but also begins to convince her that maybe she might have a place in the human world after all.
A slice of life
As far as the telling of Gumiho goes, it might take you a minute to really get your teeth into it. The narration is very simple - no dramatic, quotable lines really pop out in Cho’s writing, but the no-frills prose serves the story.
Gumiho runs at an unhurried, slice-of-life pace, which fits the setting and lays the plot out very well. The book is marketed as a romance, but what I appreciated most was that Miyoung and Jihoon's bond wasn't founded on hot-blooded teenage attraction, but rather a patiently-developed friendship. They fight, forgive, walk away, come together, talk, tell each other hard truths, and grow. We watch their relationship unfold over several months - a departure from the breakneck action and whirlwind romances of most fantasy books - and so, their interactions and the way their personalities change in response to events feels very believable.
While Miyoung and Jihoon carry the story forward brilliantly, a supporting cast made of Jihoon’s family and friends and Miyoung’s supernatural acquaintances add texture to the main plot. Their subplots and distinct personalities weave neatly into the mix, enriching the ongoing tale and our two leads’ backstories even further.
A trip to Korea
Tiny confession: for all the Korean culture rage in the Philippines, the whole phenomenon has mostly flown over my head. (I loved Descendants of the Sun and there’s always a Kdrama playing at my family’s place, but that’s mostly it.) That’s not me being edgy - it’s just the way things have played out! So a fantasy YA novel dropping me into the heart of Seoul made me feel a bit like, oh, noooow I get it.
Busy cities, hormone-ridden high schools, touristy landmarks, and dark forests come to life in Cho’s world populated with humans, gumiho, and other magical beings in Korean lore like shamans and goblins. Character interactions are given weight and texture when speakers switch between names, honorifics, and even insults (“Babo-ya, you never hear of an umbrella?”). Even the formatting of the book is unapologetic - Korean words are not italicised or translated, and it’s up to you to guess what they mean in context or do your homework looking them up.
In addition, the history of the gumiho is told in between chapters, omitting the need for exposition from the narration and dialogue. The snippets of full-on fantasy break up the pace nicely and doesn’t bog down the main story.
And the wickedest curveball this side of the Pacific
Lastly, I don’t want to give anything away but: OH MY GOD. THAT ENDING.
Reader experience will vary, but here’s how I felt: I was set up to believe that this was going to be a certain kind of YA book...and then I got to the end and I was just completely sideswiped. I remember frantically flipping pages back for clues, and realising Kat Cho did a beautifully subtle job of setting out little breadcrumbs throughout the plot that led to that emotional mess of a tidy conclusion.
The aforementioned slice-of-life pace might tempt some readers to put this book down halfway, but like a tense, slow-burn video clip that’s taking several seconds to get to the punch, I urge you: STAY UNTIL THE END. Stay, because the shock and satisfaction of that ending is going to be worth the wait.
(Also, did I cry? Yes. Yes, I did.)
All in all, Gumiho was an enjoyable, engrossing ride in a city filled with culture and magic, with two characters I’m very glad to have met. And as stoked as I am about that conclusion, there’s apparently a sequel on the way! I’m excited for the world to read more from Kat Cho, and for Gumiho to take its place as a distinct, proudly Asian addition to YA.