The Beast Player

Japanese Title: 獣の奏者 I 闘蛇編 (Kemono no sōja ichi: Tōda hen) and 獣の奏者 II 王獣編 (Kemono no sōja ni: Ōjū hen)
Author: Nahoko Uehashi (上橋 菜穂子)
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Illustrator: Yuta Onoda
Publication Year: 2006 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Henry Holt
Pages: 344

The Beast Player collects the first half of a four-book epic fantasy series set in a world of warrior kings and monsters. The story follows a young woman named Elin as she befriends a winged wolflike creature and attempts to save her kingdom from a cataclysmic disaster.

Elin’s mother Sohyon cares for serpentine megafauna called Toda, which serve as symbols of the authority of a tribe of warriors called the Aluhan. After an ailing Toda dies in her care, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death. Sohyon flees with her daughter and sacrifices herself so that Elin can escape on the back of a Toda. Upon waking in a far-away land, Elin is adopted by a reclusive scholar who keeps bees at his hermitage in the mountains. When he is called back to the capital, he offers to formally adopt Elin as his daughter, but she chooses to enroll in a school for people who care for creatures called Royal Beasts.

The bulk of The Beast Player is about Elin’s time as a student at this fantasy vet school. She bonds with an injured Royal Beast cub named Leelan and saves its life, which is nothing short of miraculous. As you can imagine from the name “Royal Beast,” these animals are politically important to the Yojeh, a matriarchy of priestess-queens. Both the Royal Beasts and the Toda are considered to be untamable and only controllable by means of brute force. Elin nevertheless discovers how to communicate with Leelan through music, just as her mother secretly communicated with Toda. This unfortunately puts Elin in a politically fraught situation. By the end of the novel, the twenty-year-old Elin has become unwillingly involved in a conspiracy over imperial succession, with a war between the Yojeh and the Aluhan looming on the horizon.

Although Elin is a child and teenager throughout most of the novel, The Beast Player is not middle-grade fiction. The story takes time to get started, and it’s not always easy to read. The first one hundred pages are filled with fantasy terms, names, and political factions that neither Elin nor the reader understands. Everything gradually begins to make sense, but only if the reader has enough patience to make it through the confusing and chaotic scenes at the beginning of the novel. Even as an adult reader, I found my head swimming with the fantasy politics at first, especially during the chapters that didn’t feature Elin. Once I made it through the opening salvo of decontextualized names and places and political titles, however, I fell in love with the world of the novel.

Elin is obviously a very special girl – the brightest witch of her age, one might say – but the adults are equally interesting characters. Joeun, the scholar who adopts Elin after her mother’s death, is a kind man who nurtures his young charge’s interest in the natural world. Esalu, the headmaster who administers the school attached to the Royal Beast Sanctuary, is just as curious and compassionate as Elin and risks both her career and her life to protect her student. Damiya, the Yojeh’s cousin who orchestrates a political coup, is suave and sinister and makes an excellent villain.

Cathy Hirano’s translation is nuanced and evocative and brings the small and vivid details of The Beast Player to life. Yuta Onoda’s spot illustrations are lovely as well. Neither the Toda nor the Royal Beasts are explicitly described in the text, and Onoda’s illustrations sketch a few hints of the animals while leaving them largely up to the reader’s imagination.

If you’re interested in getting a more precise visual sense of Elin’s world, a fifty-episode anime called Beast Player Erin (獣の奏者 エリン) was broadcast on NHK throughout 2009, and a manga drawn by Itoe Takemoto was serialized and collected in eleven volumes between 2008 and 2016. Although Beast Player Erin was briefly available on Crunchyroll, neither the anime nor the manga versions of the story are currently available in English.

I think it’s worth copying and pasting the Japanese title of the series into a search engine to get a glimpse of what these characters and their environments look like, especially if you’re an adult sharing the novel with a younger reader. The Beast Player is definitely “Asian” fantasy modeled on imperial China (with hints of Korea and Japan) instead of medieval Europe, and the characters’ costumes are quite interesting and colorful.

I also believe the reader’s understanding of the setting of the story will be greatly enhanced by seeing just how mountainous the terrain is supposed to be. One of the ongoing mysteries of the novel is the exact nature of the apocalypse that caused Erin’s people to hide the secret that communication with Royal Beasts and Toda is possible, and the revelation at the end of the book might be a little confusing if the reader isn’t able to envision the size and scale of the mountains bordering the Yojeh’s empire.

No prior cultural knowledge is necessary to enjoy The Beast Player, just a willingness to accept a slightly different style of fantasy, as well as the patience to wait as the threads of the story unspool at their own pace. The Beast Player won the Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in young adult literature in 2020, and rightly so. The worldbuilding is marvelously detailed, the characters are sympathetic despite their flaws, and the fantastic creatures are suitably awe-inspiring.

Elin’s story continues in The Beast Warrior, which is a slightly more mature novel about adult protagonists in their thirties. I found The Beast Warrior extremely engaging and entertaining, and I would highly recommend this two-volume series to fans of epic fantasy grounded in the beauty and wonder of the real world.

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