Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson

Stats 

Published: 1 October 2004
Publisher: Tor Books
Page count: 316

Synopsis 

Fudoki tells two interwoven stories: the first is the story of an aging empress in Japan (circa 1139) who recounts her past life in the days before she dies; the second involves the cat/warrior woman Kagaya-hime, who has embarked on a journey because the rest of her fudoki (her family, of sorts) have died in a fire. She finds herself alone, unable to join another clan because it wouldn’t be her clan–her family. Both of the women are on journeys of self-discovery and acceptance, and the reader spends the entire story unsure whether or not Kagaya-hime is a figment of the empress’ imagination or actually real.

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I really enjoyed this novel. I first heard about it from MercysBookishMusings over on Youtube, so it’s been on my radar for a couple of months. I’m glad I read it now, during summer break, as I got to spend more time with it. It’s a story I wanted to take slow, to consume in small doses so as to make it last. The writing was beautiful, near exquisite in some cases. It demanded to be felt, to be heard. I loved the way that Johnson crafted the narratives, and made them interlock. She’s an excellent writer and storyteller. It’s a slow burn, and it’s a very atmospheric novel.

What made this novel, for me, was the characters. I thought that both the empress and Kagaya-hime were wonderful characters. I loved the quietness to both of them, the subtly that Johnson gave them. This isn’t a loud book. It’s soft, and almost flexible. They’re both flawed woman, but strong women. I thought that Johnson gave a good insight into court life in Japan in the 1100s; she explored gender dynamics and politics without having to focus on it to a great degree.

The concept of the fudoki also hit home to me, and the way that Kagaya-hime goes on her journey because she feels like she doesn’t have one. She felt rootless, a wanderer with no destination. This concept or theme is quite relatable to me, especially at the present time. But, Kagaya-hime’s journey isn’t a hopeless one. It’s not a journey without a happy ending, because what Kagaya-hime learns is that even if the family you’re born into dies, you can construct a new one out of the people you meet. It’s a book about making your own family. It’s a book about love and faith in something outside of yourself, such as the kami.

I really can’t say enough great things about this novel. I loved the way that Johnson built the world. I loved the way she placed her characters into that world. I loved the magical elements that she seamlessly wove into the narratives. It was all fantastic. If you’re a fan of character driven novels that explore the themes I’ve mentioned and incorporate magical elements into that narrative, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. I gave it five stars! I’ll definitely be checking out her other works. 

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Until next time, happy reading!

–E. Adeline

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