Kij Johnson,
The Fox Woman
(Tor, 2000)

In medieval Japan, in the mountains of Hida province on the estate of Kaya no Yoshifuji, there lived a family of foxes. There were four of them, Grandfather, Mother, Brother and Kitsune. They lived in a burrow under the great house of the estate, for the humans had abandoned it many years before and never returned. Grandfather said the humans would never return, but Grandfather was wrong.

When Yoshifuji did not win a court appointment, he withdrew to his old estate, taking his wife and his young son with him. But it was not just the lack of an appointment that unsettled Yoshifuji, but something lacking in his life and he could not seem to find it, either in the capital nor on the estate. The only thing he found interesting was to watch the family of foxes that lived in his gardens.

Shikujo was the perfect wife. She was mannerly and pleasant, never allowing her husband to see when she was unhappy or afraid, never expressing an opinion that might upset him. She watched fearfully as he grew ever more obsessed with the foxes, for she had long kept secret a certain dream that she had experienced long ago, involving a fox who became a man.

Young Kitsune, for her part, became just as obsessed with Yoshifuji as he was with her, at last determining that she must become a woman, so that she could have him. When Shikujo returned to the capital, Kitsune knew that her time had come. Using ancient fox magics known to her Grandfather, Kitsune became a woman and Yoshifuji became her husband.

But Kitsune, now constrained by the rules of human women, learned that life as a woman was not necessarily any easier than life as a fox. And though she might have what she wanted, it might not always make her happy.

Kij Johnson has crafted a magical, lyrical retelling of a Japanese folktale, based on a previous short story. The story is told in the form of journal entries of the three major characters, Kitsune, Yoshifuji and Shikujo, and is divided into four sections, one for each season.

The story is very much about growth and change, truth and illusion, especially for the two wives, Kitsune and Shikujo. Kitsune's lesson is about wishing for things and possessing them, while Shikujo's lesson is about truth. Ultimately, both women learn that one must be true to one's self in order to be happy. Yoshifuji, on the other hand, learns the painful lesson that his entire life is built on illusions -- the illusion of his patient, loving wife, the fox-magic that creates the illusions he lives with his fox-wife, the illusion that he will find happiness anywhere outside himself. Yoshifuji must also learn to be happy with himself.

The Fox Woman is a refreshing entry into the fantasy field, a novel based on something other than the standard pseudo-medieval European settings so prevalent among fantasy novels. Johnson makes her setting come alive with rich detail and loving description, so that it is not necessary to know anything at all about Japanese history or folklore to enjoy this wonderful novel.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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