Fudoki by Kij Johnson
Tor HCVR: ISBN 0765303906 PubDate: 10/08/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
320 pgs. List price $ 25.95
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Set in the same mystical Japan as her first book, Fox Woman, Fudoki tells the story of a woman transformed from a cat who becomes "a sometime warrior, occasional philosopher, and reluctant confidant" as told by an aging empress who herself is facing the transformation from nobility to nothingness. It is beautifully written.
I'm not a cat person. I've lived with a few, but while I can see the that dogs are affection junkies, cats' indifference to the world around them fails to grab me. In Fudoki though, the tables are turned on a cat by a kami, one (or many) of the gods that inhabit the Japanese spiritual plane in Kij Johnson's mythical Japan of about 1100ad. Running away from the devastation of the village where everything she knew was destroyed by an earthquake, perhaps itself an act of the gods, she finds herself following a road and after a time, and some conversation with the kami of the road, she finds herself transformed into a woman.
True to her nature as a cat, she views this as not a wondrous occurrence, but one to take mostly in stride. Actually, she takes it less in stride as she takes it poorly, but being a cat at heart she doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about what she can't control, and continues to follow the road.
The god(s) have not forgotten her though, and magic surrounds her, if unobtrusively. When she needs a weapon, she finds that she is carrying a quiver of arrows and a bow, which she can use as easily as the claws that she misses. As a transformed creature, she understands the ways and whines of animals, and they in turn are befuddled by her. "What are you?" asks a farmer's dog. "Bigger than you." she replies.
There is an air of magical realism in the tone of the story. No one is especially surprised to find that she is a woman who once was a cat, and among the people that she meets, and the friends she makes there are those that have had similar transformations; Kitsune a young warrior she falls in with was a fox, and Nakara, his sister is thus comfortable with the idea, and Hime, as she comes to name the woman who is a cat. Though Hime has lost her family and place, her "fudoki", and though she mourns them as she travels, she follows the road with her new friends, though with no real sense of where she is going. This isn't unusual for tales of Japan, of course, where the journey seems more important than the destination, but there is indeed a destination for her, and when she arrives at it she will find as much as she has lost.
This story is woven into the story of an old and dying princess, indeed, is presented as the fancy of the princess, a fiction she is creating for her amusement. The princess herself is an unusual and interesting person, she who filled notebook after notebook with drawings of the structure of animals, and who clearly loved knowledge more than attending the court. Slowly she cleans out the trunks she has filled up during her life, thinks back over lovers she has had, and considers the depth of her friendship with Shigeko, her primary attendant.
As Hime travels a thousand miles, the princess travels her on her own voyage of discovery, and in the end both find something they have sought all along the way.