I’m recommending a double dose of Fantasy fiction this week. Set in 12th century Japan, Kij Johnson’s `Fudoki’ is a Fantasy novel about the leading character’s fantasy life. It came out in 2003 and is available in paperback or on Kindle. The paperback edition is rather expensive but it does have a  wonderful cover-picture by Michael Dringenberg showing a warrior who is half woman and half cat. In the framing story, 70 year old Princess Harueme looks back over her life while writing a story about a cat who is turned into a woman. As for the title, fudoki can mean `records’ but also a collection of stories and traditions that sums up a person (or a cat’s) heritage and identity.

Harueme is an Imperial Princess, the daughter and sister of Emperors of Japan, but she has never had much power over her own destiny.  Now that she is dying, custom decrees that she must leave the palace which has been her home for so long and spend her last days as a Buddhist nun. While she is preparing to go, Harueme recalls incidents from her life such as her disastrous marriages, her efforts to help her grieving brother,  the one time she ran away from court and the one lover who meant the world to her. As she writes a bizarre story about a cat-woman, Harueme ponders the relationships that were most important to her. The Princess comes to realize that she may have been wrong about the love of her life.

In Princess Harueme’s story, a young tortoiseshell is part of a large group of female cats and kittens living in a derelict mansion in Kyoto. When an earthquake sets the mansion on fire, the tortoiseshell is the sole survivor, the only one left to pass on the stories of her feline clan. Devastated by her loss and unwilling to lose her identity by joining another group of cats, the tortoiseshell takes refuge in an ancient gateway to the great Tokaido road. There she encounters one of the millions of kami (gods or spirits) that inhabit Japan. The tortoiseshell doesn’t see the point of gods but the kami of the Tokaido road transforms her  into a woman. She begins a thousand-mile journey along the great  road and discovers that everything she might need in her new life is magically provided.

The cat may have the body of a woman but she doesn’t yet know how to behave like a human. Close to a shrine dedicated to Fox spirits, she encounters a noblewoman called Nakara, who herself has a curious history. Nakara invites the cat-woman to join her on a pilgrimage. In spite of their differences the two become friends. The cat’s killer instincts make her a formidable warrior and when she saves Nakara’s group from bandits, she earns the nickname Kagaya-hime (Princess Glory). She later meets Nakara’s adopted brother, Kitsune, who like Kagaya-hime isn’t what he seems. Kitsune’s brother has been killed in a feud with a rival clan. When he rides off to war with the formidable old warrior Takase, Kagaya-hime goes with them. She still has a lot to learn about the brutal world of humans.

This novel is a personal favourite of mine for a number of reasons. Firstly it is set in the extraordinary period of Japanese culture when aristocratic women were writing revelatory personal diaries and the world’s first great novels. The survival of these books means that we know a great deal about life in the sophisticated Imperial court where nobles were judged by their ability to improvise poems, play sad songs and wear subtly matching colours. This is an era which inspired one of my own Fantasy novels (White Cranes Castle) and if you want to know more about it I recommend a book called `The World of the Shining Prince’ by Ivan Morris. Johnson obviously did a great deal of research before writing this novel and its predecessor, `The Fox Woman’, but the result isn’t dry or scholarly. She describes the landscapes and lifestyles of early medieval Japan in a passionate and sensuous way and she has created a sympathetic central character.  Harueme is an intelligent woman forced to live an elegant but restricted life. Controlled by her male relatives, she is not allowed to travel and even within the palace she must constantly  hide herself behind screens. No wonder that Harueme chooses to write a story about a creature who has no family and is entirely free to roam Japan.

As a cat lover I was bound to find `Fudoki’ irresistible but you don’t have to like cats to enjoy this novel because Johnson writes about them in such an unsentimental way. The cat colony is beautifully observed. The cats drowse and groom and play until an earthquake strikes. The subsequent fire is vividly portrayed from the point of a view of a baffled and terrified young cat, running away on badly burned paws. The tortoiseshell can expect no help or pity from other cats. She is on her own. Even after Kagaya-hime has been turned into a woman she continues to think like a cat. She hunts and kills and is focused on her own survival. She understands lust but not love and she gets on better with her horse than with people. However, Kagaya-hime’s encounter with a kami does leave her curious about whether everything has a soul, even prey-animals. This leads to charming scenes in which she questions a representative of the Empire of Mice and has an argument with some feisty riceballs.

As a writer, I love this book because it is about the importance of choosing and telling your own story, however strange that story may seem to other people. Like her feline heroine, Princess Harueme has always had an interest in mice and other small creatures. She has been much mocked for this eccentric behaviour but it is one of the things which makes her unique. Two of the characters in `Fudoki’, Kitsune and Nakara, played traditional roles in `The Fox Woman’ but in this novel they have chosen their own histories and life-paths. Unlike `The Cat with a Litter of Ten’ or `The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell’, Kagaya-hime was too young to have earned a place in the story of her original clan. Can `The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles’ found her own fudoki? Read the novel to find out. Until next week…