Yesterday we had a closer look at the first of the two winning titles from the GLLI Translated Young Adult Book Prize – Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi Red Mantle. Today we will be discussing the other prize-winning book: The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano (Pushkin Press/Henry Holt & Co.). Just as yesterday’s book formed part of a series, The Beast Player is part one of a two part series. The sequel, The Beast Warrior was released just a few weeks ago, and it really hasn’t disappointed!
In The Beast Player we meet Elin, the ten-year-old daughter of a skilled beast doctor for the fantastic snakelike creatures the Toda. The Toda are bred to be fighting beasts with a selected few chosen to become the Kiba, an awesome army to defend the kingdom of Lyoza. But when all the Kiba in Elin’s village suddenly and mysteriously die, Elin’s mum is blamed and sentenced to a vicious death. Unwilling to allow her mum to be killed in this way, Elin attempts a solo rescue. Recognising she cannot save her own life, her mum breaks the sacred vow of her people and, using a finger whistle, she sends Elin far away on the back of one of the wild Toda.
This event is to shape events throughout both books as Elin seeks to discover all that her mother knew about caring for beasts. Brought up by a kindly beekeeper who teaches her about the natural world around her, Elin is still a child when she first encounters a Royal Beast in the wild; a powerful winged creature and the symbol of the Yojeh, the divine leader of Lyoza.
The descriptions throughout the two books are majestic. In preparing this review, I read an interview with translator Cathy Hirano in which she explains:
“Uehashi herself says that she wanted to create stories and worlds that no one has ever seen before and cites Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as one of the greatest influences on her work.”
I can all too well believe this as the descriptions of vast expanses of territory, particularly the meadows in the height of summer, are really brought to life. I also enjoyed the discussions about food and eating, the importance of preparing and sharing food together and the significance given to the foods eaten in certain areas.
A love of beasts is not the only legacy left by her mother. From her mother’s side, Elin inherits green eyes, a characteristic of the Ahlyo people. Her father being an Aluhan, this child of dual heritage is continually received with wariness on the basis of her appearance, highlighting social values and hierarchies at play in this fantasy world. At her school, the other pupils are told to ignore Elin’s green eyes, yet her loyal friend Yuyan explains:
“It’s only human to notice when someone’s different, right? If it were me, I’d say that instead of ignoring it, we ought to tell people not to be so dumb as to take those differences in the wrong way … you are who you are, and that’s all that matters.”
As well as a story of a girl’s love for animals and her desire to do the best for the animals in her care, The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior weave in a story of politics. The Kingdom of Lyoza is divided into two territories – Yojeh territory and Aluhan territory. Each area has its own leader, its own powerful fighting beast – the Toda and the Royal Beast – and each has individuals with their own personal ambitions. Elin is dragged into the political debate against her will. At the end of book one, we leave on the scene of a battle, where a third force has emerged to undermine both kingdoms, forcing the leaders of the two nations to unite.
The second book transports us ten years beyond that point. Elin is now married with a son, Royal Beast Leelan has mated and produced offspring, and the two kingdoms of the Yojeh and the Aluhan are now united against the lands beyond their borders. In this second novel, Uehashi also makes some poignant comments about war and about those in power who seek to reap the rewards of other people’s sacrifices. The female leader, the Yojeh, leads her lords into battle so that they too play their part. Both of these commentaries are pertinent in these times of global challenges.
To finish off this review, I shall leave you with Avery Fischer Udawaga’s Ten reasons to love The Beast Player, which I think could equally be applied the The Beast Warrior.
- It centers on animal husbandry, offering as much detail about beekeeping and working livestock as The Secret Life of Bees or Charlotte’s Web.
- The Beast Player explores music as a language. (Player refers to playing music.)
- The heroine Elin’s passion is something even her trusted teachers and friends regard as wrong.
- Elin follows her conscience despite the threat of persecution, even from her own relatives.
- Of mixed racial background, she overturns society’s prejudiced expectations based on her looks.
- She is parented by a singular and marvelous, if disgraced, foster father.
- Her story offers page-turning, anime-inspiring adventure while asking deep ethical questions about the relationship between humans and nature.
- It features a mouth-watering cooking scene.
- Fantasy but not escapist, it portrays a political mess as existential as any our real world has to offer.
- It shows how a few folks obstinately caring can turn a tide.