Kij Johnson, Fudoki [Library of Babel]

Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman, the story of a fox in Heian-era Japan who becomes a woman for the sake of love, was a beautiful and moving book, so, of course, I bought her next book, Fudoki immediately. And then, it took me three years to get around to reading it… There’s no real good reason for the delay– I just kept passing over it for other things. Now that I’ve finally got around to reading it, I wish I had read it sooner. It’s another marvelous book, and richly deserved its World Fantasy Award nomination.

Fudoki tells two stories. The first is the story of a cat who turns into a woman and embarks on an epic quest to find a new home, and the second is the story of a dying princess in the Imperial court, who is writing the first story as a way of passing the time before she is to retire to a nunnery. She mixes in bits and pieces of her own life as she tells the story of the tortoiseshell cat who becomes a woman called Kagaya-Hime. The two stories parallel each other, with Kagaya-Hime (the cat) wandering in search of a new place to call home, and Harueme (the princess) recounting a lifetime of yearning for freedom from the claustrophobic constraints of her life at court.

The title is taken from the imagined social structure of cats:

The cats (the female cats) of the residence’s grounds shared another thing, their fudoki, which is self and soul and home and shrine, all in one to a cat. The fudoki is the chronicle of the females who have claimed a place, a river of cats that starts with the first to come to that place, and ends with oneself– when one grows experienced enough to have a tale to tell. It is also the place itself, and the cat whose story it is, and the immaterial shrine in which the household is honored. A cat may lose her tale by leaving her family and place, but then she is not the same cat. Mothers taught their daughters the fudoki; if the mother died too soon, the cousins and aunts and fellow-wives did so. Some (though not all) of the kittens would live; the tale would go on, an unbroken stream.

Though she was fairly young, the tortoiseshell cat had survived kittenhood and not run away. She had not yet earned a place in her tale, though her aunts and cousins had taken to calling her The Small Cat. This would change when she had earned a true name and a longer story. The tortoiseshell’s fudoki was many cats long, and she knew them all– The Cat with a Litter of Ten, The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell, The Fire-Tailed Cat.

The cat’s story begins when a fire destroys her home and family, and she finds herself on the road bereft of her fudoki, and looking for a new place. A mischevious kami (one of the divine spirits of Shinto) turns her into a woman, and she wanders many hundreds of miles of the Tokaido road into northern Japan. Meanwhile, the princess Harueme, daughter, half-sister, and great-aunt of Emperors, languishes at court, too wrapped in by her place and story, and writing the story of the cat as a kind of escape.

Both tales are beautifully written, and the Heian-era setting is richly detailed (and exhaustively researched). The cat Kagaya-Hime’s adventures are colorful and thrilling, and the constrained life of the princess comes through in all its suffocating detail. They twine around each other, and possibly even intersect (each story also features a cameo appearance by characters from The Fox Woman), before they each find an ending that is thoroughly satisfying.

This is a really superb book, and I highly recommend it. She hasn’t published anything since, and I don’t know if there’s anything new on the horizon, but I hope she has more stories to tell. I’ll even try to read them promptly, this time.