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Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 6 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

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5 out of 5 stars

Length: 316 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Better World Books

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