‘Yes, that’s a Royal Beast,’ Joeun murmured. ‘I’ve seen them in the capital … but I never thought I would see one in the wild. They’re very rare, and I’ve heard their numbers are declining because they only bear one offspring at a time. Yet for some reason the ones raised under the care of the Yojeh never bear young.’
(The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi. P 114.) Synopsis:
A young woman’s bond with nature puts her in danger of becoming a political pawn.
Elin’s mother cares for the Toda, the fearsome serpents which form the core of the kingdom’s army. When some of the Toda die, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death. With her last breath she commands the Toda to take her daughter to safety.
Elin is adopted by a bee-keeper and later takes up a place at Kazalumu sanctuary where she studies to become a beast doctor. She soon learns that she is able to communicate with the majestic flying beasts known as the Royal Beasts, the only creatures able to fight off the Toda.
A plot on the queen’s life centres around the Toda. When Elin’s powers are discovered, she becomes pawn at the centre of a centuries-old game.
Is it right to bond with an animal if that bond could put them in the centre of political turmoil? An extraordinary fantasy which examines human capacity for dominance. This was one of the best novels I have read. It is a must-read for fans of His Dark Materials and the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
The Beast Player takes place over the course of ten years, from the time Elin sees her mother murdered to the point where she is a young woman. This time-scale works because a large part of the book takes place when Elin is fourteen-years-old. Although it is a huge time-frame for one novel, it felt realistic to me that political unrest would build over years rather than months.
Elin is an interesting protagonist. She is strongminded, but unlike many recent YA protagonists, her strength is not self-destructive or external. She knows her own mind and strives always to protect the beasts with which she has formed a bond. She isn’t afraid to contradict others. I was pleased to see this in a female protagonist. Girls are criticised more readily than boys for speaking out, and I was pleased to see a character who doesn’t back down when her ideas are challenged.
The political battle is superficially about royalty and state, but beneath the surface there is corruption and deceit on all sides. The story makes commentary on human nature, recurring political patterns and our place among other living beings. The scope of these themes is phenomenal, yet it was never anything but a strong story.
This is storytelling at its best. Memorable characters and settings are used to make a huge statement about life. It is the kind of book which defies age boundaries. It deserves a place on every bookshelf.
Huge thanks to Pushkin Press for my copy of The Beast Player. Opinions my own.