Author: Kij Johnson
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
I was really hesitant about purchasing a physical book, I don’t like the cover and I’m shallow like that. However, the Kindle e-copy costed $20AUD, so I conceded and purchased the hard copy instead. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of my best purchasing decision of this year, because the content of this book is extraordinary in its ability to weave Japanese history with magic. I have never read a book quite like it, at least not in English – and I am eager to go back and explore more of Kij Johnson’s other novels.
The book is heavily inspired by Japan’s Heian era, specifically by the classic Tales of Genji, and the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. Similar to the authors of these archaic text, our narrator is a noblewoman, sequestered behind the gilded screens of her palace for all her life.
The first twist on this is the age of the narrator, she’s well into her 70s and is dying by the time we encounter her. It’s incredibly rare to find an elderly character in any work of fiction – let alone in fantasy, especially one that commands and drive the text in the manner of Harueme. Despite being confined to her quarters, and limited by her station in life – her excellent imagination allow her, as well as the reader, to reach beyond her cage and explore ancient Japan. During the last days of her life, Harueme begins to pen a tale documenting the (perhaps fictitious) life of Kagaya-hime, a cat turned into a woman – who travels the Tokaido road while trying to find her fudoki, her story.
Fudoki (風土記) is a term which refers records of stories, tales and myths. Kagaya-hime, as a tortoiseshell kitten, grew up learning the fudoki of her fellow brethren in the Imperial City: from The Cat Born The Year The Star Fell to The Fire-Tailed Cat. These stories are the core of their identity, and they pass them on through generations – so that each cat is not only an individual, but a culmination of their collective tales. When a fire wipes out the Imperial Palace and leaves Kagaya-hime the sole survivor of her fudoki, she flounders to rediscover her identity and an adventure which leads her on the famous Tokaido road – which spans from ancient Kyoto to Edo (modern day Tokyo). On the way, she encounters kami, spirits of Japan – and a twist of fate transformed her into a young woman. Despite her altered appearances, Kagaya-hime remains a cat at heart.
Kagaya-hime is utterly unconcerned by human decorum or code of social conduct. Blessed with the increased senses of a cat, she transform into a formidable warrior in her own right. However, she remains feline in her observations of the humans and events she encounters. Some of the most delightful quotes from this book are beautiful insights on the nature of humanity versus the characteristics of cats. If you’re a lover of cats, if you have any interest in these feline creatures at all – really, you’ll be delighted by this wonderful novel.
As Kagaya-hime’s journey takes her through most of Honshu, we are privy to the gorgeous sight and sound of ancient day Japan -when traders and warriors alike traversed the Tokaido route. The descriptions of these scenes are authentic and vivid, made all the more alive as we see it through the eyes of a cat. The people Kagaya-hime met along the way are equally varied and colourful in their background. From an iron-willed noblewoman, to a man who was once a fox – they all had their own rich history and unique connection to our main character.
On the other hand, we also follow Harueme and her last days in the Imperial Palace closely. While she writes out the tale of Kagaya-hime, she also recounts her own life events and the inspiration behind her story. Harueme has always dreamed of life beyond the halls of her palace, a life she had only glimpsed at through stories from her numerous lovers. Like Kagaya-hime, Harueme also formed multiple connections throughout her life – with one of the most important being her friendship with her handmaiden, Shigeko. Their quiet and steadfast friendship was one of my favourite things about this novel. Another thing which pleased me to no end was its era-appropriate values and philosophy – don’t you just hate it when historical fiction is filled with characters with 21st century morals ande idealism? As befitting of a Heian era princess, Harueme had multiple lovers without judgement from her peers. She also had slightly different values about love and about grief, some of these ideas are mirrored directly from The Tales of Genji. I love a historical novel which can capture its featured era so completely.
In spite of my love for this book, I have to note that it’s primarily an introspective and character driven story. Aside from Kagaya-hime’s travels, there’s very little action driving the story forward. Instead, you get to know both Harueme and Kagaya-hime intimately, along the way – you discover the shared dreams of a woman and a cat. It’s a tale of two individuals finding their own voices against all odds, the message is ultimately empowering despite the lack of drama.
I think this book would be perfectly suited for anyone looking for a unique fantasy, set outside of the usual Western confines. There’s strong female characters, and an individual not quite human propel the story onwards. I would love for more people to read this book so I could have someone to chat to! Have you read this or anything similar to it?