Fudoki | Kij Johnson

TITLE / Fudoki

AUTHOR / Kij Johnson


DATE OF PUBLICATION / October 1, 2004

NO. OF PAGES / 316


This is fantasy as I've never read it before.

Kij Johnson's Fudoki follows an aging imperial princess Harueme as she clears out her belongings so that she can retire to a monastery to live out her final days. As her attendant Shigeko sorts through trinkets, robes, and burns old notebooks full of writing, Harueme writes down the story of a young cat and the adventure that sends her away from her home in the capital and on a long journey to the other end of the empire. As Harueme also muses on her own life and her past encounters with her one love, a guard from a far off province named Domei, she writes a story that has our little cat girl facing kami (gods) and having to readjust to life after mysteriously turning into a human woman called Kagaya-hime.

When I first heard about this over on Mercedes' YouTube channel, I immediately added it to my to read list. I didn't know much about the plot, other than the obvious based on the cover. But I have honestly never encountered fantasy quite like this before, and now that I've written that out I'm starting to wonder if this should be more correctly classified as historical fiction, or historical fantasy. The story felt so authentic and seamless that it was easy to see that the author did her research and did it well.

The tale Harueme tells of Kagaya-hime is so compelling not only because of the tragedy the young cat faces and overcomes, but because of how it serves as a reflection and extension of Harueme's own life. One of the great takeaways for me was how much this novel reveals about court life in 12th century Japan, particularly that of a woman. There is a heart-breaking passage where Harueme, recalling her brief attempt to run away from the court and her would-be husband, admits:

"walking is hard. It had been twenty? twenty-five? years since I had walked with vigor; and then I'd been a girl" (254).

This about broke my heart. Harueme's life has been one of confinement and constant scrutiny, never more than earshot away from her attendants or a screen away from a man who would share her bed. She has never really seen the streets of the capital, let alone the different provinces or roads throughout the empire. It really is no wonder that she would craft a tale about a little cat who becomes a woman that is completely independent and able to not only fend for herself, but can actually best men at their own sport of war.

In addition to the plot and characters, Kij Johnson's writing is a joy in itself. She manages to capture the very soft, lyrical quality that is characteristic of Japanese literature, making Fudoki read like an authentic Japanese myth rather than a work of modern fiction. The pacing is also quite similar to Japanese literature; the plot is gripping, yet the pace is as steady as Kagaya-hime as she journeys on the Tokaido. Although I found I could put this down for hours at a time without feeling the burning desire to pick it up again, the novel also continued to linger in the back of my mind and I never really stopped thinking about it.

All in all, I am glad that Kij Johnson has written another novel in this same universe (The Fox Woman), because I don't think I'm ready to leave it entirely. Fudoki is definitely one of the best books I have read all year.

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