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The Fox Woman
Kij Johnson
Tor Books, 382 pages

The Fox Woman
Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson taught writing and science-fiction writing at Louisiana State University, and has lectured on creativity and writing at bookstores and businesses across the country. She has been awarded the William Crawford Award for Achievement in Fantasy. Since 1994, she has assisted at the Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction, hosted by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. In the past 10 years, she has worked as managing editor at Tor Books; collections and special editions editor for Dark Horse Comics; editor, continuity manager and creative director for Wizards of the Coast; and most recently as a program manager on the Microsoft Reader. She has also run chain and independent bookstores; worked as a radio announcer and engineer, edited cryptic crosswords, and waitressed in a strip bar. She lives in Seattle with her husband.

Kij Johnson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Kij Johnson
Interview: Kij Johnson

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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Why The Fox Woman has not yet been reviewed by SF Site, I could not guess: perhaps an oversight on the publisher's behalf, perhaps an oversight of the reviewers who never purchased a copy of their own. Perhaps it is a sign that the novel is destined to burble underground until it achieves its proper status.

"Fox Magic", the novelette from Asimov's that won the 1994 Sturgeon Award, forms the basis of The Fox Woman. Like Ender's Game, Johnson's original novelette, while evocative and moving, holds nothing on the novel.

Kij Johnson's careful attention to language, period and character detail should garner the attention of crossover literary readers as well as fantasy fans -- much as Ray Bradbury and Robert Adams managed to do. Here, from Johnson's novel, is an example of such detail where Kisune, the young fox, first explores the world outside the den:

"Our burrow was dug under a structure that was flat and black over our heads, supported by a forest of tree-thick pillars, each resting on a rock. When I was old enough to be curious about this, I jumped up into the structure.

"I saw and smelled a cavern supported by pillars and roofed with dead grasses a tree's height over my head. The floor under my toes was of boxwood planks, smooth and cool and flat. Through a crack in the floor I heard my brother barking at my grandfather -- impatient little noises. I scratched at the crack. Paws padded below. A nose snuffled upward.

"'Sister?'

""I'm walking on you?' I couldn't understand this.

"'Where are you?'

"I didn't know what to say. This floor I stood on was the roof over the burrow, I knew -- there was my brother, after all -- how could it be else?"

This isn't simply the tale of a fox falling in love with a Japanese man, as some reviews may have suggested, nor only a man falling in love with a fox, but also the wife that was caught in between and the taboos that have forced them into this situation.

Kaya no Yoshifuji fears he is a failure. After not receiving an appointment to the court, he retreated, perhaps dishonorably, to the country, where the "perfect" wife, Shikujo, is unhappy, though socially incapable of expressing her displeasure. Yoshifuji's country home, like his life, is in disarray and must be organized, but in his time and in his way. The laws of society that have followed him home in the form of Shikujo and her serving women is almost unbearable; nor can Shikujo fathom her husband's unconventional behavior toward things of the wild though she must pretend that it is proper and respond correctly. Meanwhile, a young fox has spied Yoshifuji on his return and finds herself falling in love. Just as foxes have used foxfire to lure men astray into the woods, so Kitsune uses fox magic to alter reality.

The flaws are minimal, if not insignificant. The diaries and journals are less authentic in feel than in constructs to maintain an actual narrative. The meditation in this work is no more than that of a traditional narrative. Fast-paced, this novel is not -- if such could be named a flaw -- but the author on rare occasion may have felt the lack and tried to inject unnecessary and narratively-unfelt tension. Kitsune, for instance, "demands" and the grandfather fox pounces on her for it. The advantage of a slower pace is more intensely felt action scenes. Who could forget the violence in such leisurely paced films as Oscar and Lucinda and The Piano? Still Johnson takes every advantage of such pacing and soundly scores the music of her style upon the reader's mind.

Good debut novels are usually a mixed bag: painfully flawed yet marvelous in the discovery of a new voice. Kirsten Bakis' Bram Stoker award-winning first novel, Lives of the Dog Monsters, contained stunning passages told in the voices of dogs but fell short of human when the human voices narrated. Johnson, however, does not falter. Her humans are as empathetically human as her foxes. If there are better first fantasy novels that appeared in the year 2000, I haven't read them and someone had better recommend them -- though that someone will have the difficult chore of proving it.

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.


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