I would like to write a real review to draw people's attention to this novel, which is far and away the best fantasy I've read all year. But it's so good, so complex, so assured, and so completely embodies in the text everything I might say to praise or describe it that I'm at a loss for words.

Harueme is a princess in Heian Japan. She's old and dying, and starts writing a story while she prepares to spend the last brief moments of her life as a nun-- an existence no more cloistered than that at the sheltered, mannered Heian court.

Harueme's story is about a tortoiseshell cat who loses her clan in a fire, and with them the shared stories which bind and define their society: their fudoki. The cat meets up with a kami (a god) who, without asking her permission or explaining why, transforms her into a woman. But the woman still thinks and fights like a cat, and possesses strange belongings which correspond to her feline attributes: twenty knives, for instance, the color of her claws. When she gives one away, a raw place appears where one of her nails used to be.

The cat woman, who people come to call Kagaya-Hime, meets up with a fox man (apparently a refugee from THE FOX WOMAN) and a traveling war band. She experiences war, speaks to ghosts, and never quite learns what it is to be human, though the humans she meets learn a lot about what it is to be a cat.

The novel intertwines Harueme's own story with Kagaya-hime's. Both are equally gripping, even though all sorts of dramatic and magical things happen in one and the other is mostly about a woman sitting in a room. It is impossible to guess where either storyline is going or how they will come together, if they do. But the ending, in which each story comes to a separate conclusion which also ties them together, is one of those tremendously satisfying ones which is both unpredicable and yet, in retrospect, inevitable.

The atmosphere and details of Japan are fascinating, and accurate without the smothered feeling of too much research. The prose is gorgeous, the insights are wise, and incidents are heartbreaking. The approach to fantasy is definitely Asian in feel (particularly a bit about the ghosts of rice balls) but never condescendingly orientalist.

My only quibble is that several of the characters, particularly Harueme, sometimes express sentiments that seem a bit modern-liberal: musings about the sad and brutal reality of war as opposed to its portrayal in art, overly sympathetic feelings about peasants, and a frustration with the real place of women in society (again, as opposed to their portrayal in art) which seems subliminally informed by modern feminism. It's not that I think no one ever had rebellious thoughts back then, it's that the way she sometimes expresses them seems more like a modern woman contemplating Heian Japan than a Heian princess who doesn't quite fit in but has never known any other way of life.

Some of this fits in with the larger themes of how art reflects upon reality and vice versa; it's just that there are a few moments when I wish that an already subtle book had been a tiny bit subtler.

But like I said: though I got to it late, I certainly haven't read anything better all year. This has all the virtues of THE FOX WOMAN, but without the slow part in the middle-end section where everyone's under a very long enchantment.
I would like to write a real review to draw people's attention to this novel, which is far and away the best fantasy I've read all year. But it's so good, so complex, so assured, and so completely embodies in the text everything I might say to praise or describe it that I'm at a loss for words.

Harueme is a princess in Heian Japan. She's old and dying, and starts writing a story while she prepares to spend the last brief moments of her life as a nun-- an existence no more cloistered than that at the sheltered, mannered Heian court.

Harueme's story is about a tortoiseshell cat who loses her clan in a fire, and with them the shared stories which bind and define their society: their fudoki. The cat meets up with a kami (a god) who, without asking her permission or explaining why, transforms her into a woman. But the woman still thinks and fights like a cat, and possesses strange belongings which correspond to her feline attributes: twenty knives, for instance, the color of her claws. When she gives one away, a raw place appears where one of her nails used to be.

The cat woman, who people come to call Kagaya-Hime, meets up with a fox man (apparently a refugee from THE FOX WOMAN) and a traveling war band. She experiences war, speaks to ghosts, and never quite learns what it is to be human, though the humans she meets learn a lot about what it is to be a cat.

The novel intertwines Harueme's own story with Kagaya-hime's. Both are equally gripping, even though all sorts of dramatic and magical things happen in one and the other is mostly about a woman sitting in a room. It is impossible to guess where either storyline is going or how they will come together, if they do. But the ending, in which each story comes to a separate conclusion which also ties them together, is one of those tremendously satisfying ones which is both unpredicable and yet, in retrospect, inevitable.

The atmosphere and details of Japan are fascinating, and accurate without the smothered feeling of too much research. The prose is gorgeous, the insights are wise, and incidents are heartbreaking. The approach to fantasy is definitely Asian in feel (particularly a bit about the ghosts of rice balls) but never condescendingly orientalist.

My only quibble is that several of the characters, particularly Harueme, sometimes express sentiments that seem a bit modern-liberal: musings about the sad and brutal reality of war as opposed to its portrayal in art, overly sympathetic feelings about peasants, and a frustration with the real place of women in society (again, as opposed to their portrayal in art) which seems subliminally informed by modern feminism. It's not that I think no one ever had rebellious thoughts back then, it's that the way she sometimes expresses them seems more like a modern woman contemplating Heian Japan than a Heian princess who doesn't quite fit in but has never known any other way of life.

Some of this fits in with the larger themes of how art reflects upon reality and vice versa; it's just that there are a few moments when I wish that an already subtle book had been a tiny bit subtler.

But like I said: though I got to it late, I certainly haven't read anything better all year. This has all the virtues of THE FOX WOMAN, but without the slow part in the middle-end section where everyone's under a very long enchantment.
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