August 31, 2022

REVIEW Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit (Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit #1) by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit (Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit #1) by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: May 31, 2022
Format: Audiobook (Borrowed from Library)
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends 


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Jesse Q. Sutanto’s newest book, the middle-grade fantasy novel Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit is an entertaining, witty, and fast-paced tale. Our main character, Theo, is determined to ignore the Chinese side of his identity and embrace his “American-ness” as much as possible (unlike his practically perfect in any way older brother Jaime). Things go wrong, however, after his brother dies and he inherits his brother’s sarcastic and snarky fox companion spirit Kai. The two irk each other to no end, but they must join forces to find out what happened, unravel all the secrets around Jaime’s death and make sure his death is not in vain. 

The grief that both Theo and Kai are experiencing is palpable. They both loved Jaime in their own way, and while he was alive they competed for his affection and attention. After he dies, the time they are forced to spend together allows them to learn more about each other, and eventually, they grow to become friends. Although they’d both deny it, I saw their interactions as something akin to a sibling bond. The story is told from their alternating points of view, and I appreciated how that decision gave more depth and perspective to the story (and their interactions). 

The magic system in this book was interesting. There’s “cirth”, which is the commercialized fuel for day-to-day magical spells (and even some video games). There’s also “chi”, which is the more ancestral (for lack of a better word) fuel for magic that most humans have forgotten how to use. I appreciated getting to learn about the various diverse animal companions in the world of Theo Tan, and how many of them were influenced by stories in Chinese folktales and mythology. 

One unexpected but important lesson that I learned from this book was about the nuances of the Mandarin language. Mandarin is a tonal language, with four core tones that can make one syllable be the difference between two very different words. Theo has spent most of his life ignoring his heritage, and thus not putting much effort into learning the language, so once he actually has to use it there are multiple mishaps and spells gone wrong. Kai, given her immortal nature as a fox spirit, is much more skilled at the language and takes great amusement in correcting Theo’s mistakes (often small ones based on single syllables or tones). 

Overall, this was a very enjoyable and heartwarming book. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Mandarin pronunciation in the audiobook, but in my opinion (as a white caucasian reviewer) narrators Caleb Yen and Kimberley Wong did a great job bringing the book to life. If you are a kid or an adult who's a kid at heart and would enjoy a diverse tale with a unique magic system, immersive cultural elements, and a strong sense of family then Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit should be your next read! Given that this is currently listed as being part of a series, I’m eager to hear news about the next book and read it once it’s out.

About the Book
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...

About the Author

Jesse Q Sutanto grew up shuttling back and forth between Jakarta and Singapore and sees both cities as her homes. She has a Masters degree from Oxford University, though she has yet to figure out a way of saying that without sounding obnoxious. She is currently living back in Jakarta on the same street as her parents and about seven hundred meddlesome aunties. When she's not tearing out her hair over her latest WIP, she spends her time baking and playing FPS games. Oh, and also being a mom to her two kids. 

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