Have you ever wished to communicate with animals and understand their thoughts and feelings? The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano) is not your usual fantasy book. Even if it has magical creatures and kingdoms, it is unique in almost every other way. Elin, The Beast Player’s main character, has a special gift; she can communicate with magical beasts! No one else in her kingdom has this unique power.
Elin’s life seems to be perfect until the untimely passing of some Toda called Kiba, the largest and strongest group. The Toda are creatures similar to water serpents and dragons. Some of them were held in captivity to be used in war, while some remained in the wild. Elin’s mother, Sohyon, isn’t native to the village; since she is an Ahlyo, the villagers allowed her to care for the Toda. Ahlyo is a group of people adept at controlling creatures as they hold special skills, or as the villagers call it–magical powers. They, however, are sworn to secrecy. The initial setback to Elin’s perfect life occurs when these captive creatures are found dead. Immediately after discovering the dead Toda, Sohyon was certain that their life would change for the worse. She uses her ‘powers’ to summon a wild Toda, puts Elin on its back, and signals it to save Elin’s life by leaving the village.
When Elin finally reached land, she was miles away from her village, and worst of all, she had just lost her mother. Soon, Elin meets Joeun, who cares for her and becomes her foster father. Joeun taught Elin many things: from making a harp to caring for the bees, and best of all, to read! Nonetheless, things change when Elin starts school–a special one that trains students to care for the Royal Beasts. Royal Beasts are animals that are not allowed to understand humans nor communicate with them.
Soon after arriving at Kazalumu Sanctuary, Elin’s school, she meets a young and injured Royal Beast, Leelan. After convincing the headteacher, Elin was allowed to care for the young beast. As months passed by at Leelan’s side, Elin became a motherly figure to theyoung animal. Elin’s encounter reflects upon my own experience of developing a strong bond with my pet fish, whom I lovingly named Bluey; his blue and red hues were stunning! I cared for him very much and spent hours at a stretch just watching Bluey swim around in his cozy tank. Sadly, he didn’t live for long. In retrospect, maybe Bluey’s ‘cozy’ tank was not so comfortable after all. Perhaps he would have lived longer if he was in the wild.
The Beast Player is a well-paced and captivating book that left me spellbound till the end. Even if Elin’s bond with Leelan meant breaking foreign rules, she loved Leelan. Elin wanted to keep her safe from the queen's nephew, who was determined to use the Royal Beasts as weapons of war.
“She had never dreamed that people would manipulate Royal Beasts with the Silent Whistle, just like the Toda. Her heart sank as she listened.” spoke deep into my heart and resonated with Elin’s empathy for these animals.
If you like adventure, animals, and some action, then The Beast Player is the right book for you! The well-crafted story of a strong-willed girl conveys a beautiful message of love, empathy, and perseverance. After reading this book, I learned an important lesson: never stop trying, even if your hard work leads to brick walls. There is always hope for a change!
The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano. Square Fish, 2020. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!