Book Review of Fudoki, by Kij Johnson

FudokiFudoki, by Kij Johnson, has been on my TBR for years. I finally picked a copy up from my local library.

Description from Goodreads:
Enter the world of Kagaya-hime, a sometime woman warrior, occasional philosopher, and reluctant confidante to noblemen–who may or may not be a figment of the imagination of an aging empress who is embarking on the last journey of her life, setting aside the trappings of court life and reminiscing on the paths that lead her to death.

For she is a being who started her journey on the kami, the spirit road, as a humble tortoiseshell feline. Her family was destroyed by a fire that decimated most of the Imperial city, and this loss renders her taleless, the only one left alive to pass on such stories as The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell, The Cat with a Litter of Ten, and The Fire-Tailed Cat. Without her fudoki–self and soul and home and shrine–she alone cannot keep the power of her clan together. And she cannot join another fudoki, because although she might be able to win a place within another clan, to do so would mean that she would cease to be herself.

So a small cat begins an extraordinary journey. Along the way she will attract the attention of old and ancient powers. Gods who are curious about this creature newly come to Japan’s shores, and who choose to give the tortoiseshell a human shape.

It took me a full 120 pages to finally get truly interested in this book. It’s jut so very slow. Now, it’s meant to be. It’s about a dying old woman who, while writing a fictional story, is contemplated her life. From the very beginning there was a lot to think about, but I was honestly bored. However, once Hime becomes human things pick up a little…or maybe I had finally just adjusted to the slow pace.

But once I got past the slow pace, I was really impressed with this as a contemplation on place—the idea of one’s social place, place as a physical location and the intersection of these ideas that construct our sense of ourselves (Fudoki). Harueme is a princess—daughter, grandaughter, sister and aunt to emperors. But this same high rank (place in society) is a prison of sort, keeping her in her place dreaming of being free, of seeing the world and new places. She is never allowed to escape her place, physical or cultural. While simultaneously, Hime is a cat who has lost her Fudoki, her place and therefore the sense and understand of self that it provided. She spends the whole book looking for a place to be her and her own.

If you’re looking for a contemplative read and have any interest in 11th century Japanese culture I recommend picking this one up.

On a side note, it looks like you can find a free spinoff short story, called The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles, here.

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