The Beast Player by Uehashi Nahoko

The Beast Player
by Uehashi Nahoko
translated by Cathy Hirano
Pushkin Press (2018)
ISBN-13: 978-1782691679

Review by Harry Martin

The Beast Player is the long-awaited English translation of the famous Kemono no Sojaseries by renowned fantasy writer Uehashi Nahoko.

Already widely popular in its native Japan, the story has been adapted into a successful anime and manga series as well as a multi-series publication. Largely unknown in the international market, this new offering from Pushkin Press brings a highly original, fantastical newcomer into the global fantasy space, which will likely satisfy the most ardent fans of the genre.

Set in a fantasy world born entirely of the author’s imagination, the novel follows the story of Elin, a young girl born into a family of Toda stewards, Todas being the revered serpent-like dragon creatures that serve to protect the Lyoza kingdom. Setting the scene with immediate effect, Uehashi depicts a landscape of small rural villages amongst snow-capped mountain ranges, lush forests and vast plains. Elin comes from an insular world focused solely on the preservation and care of these mythical beasts but possesses an innate sensitivity and bond that the others cannot feel.

Elin’s mother is a beast doctor and cares for the most highly regarded of the Toda stock. Following a disastrous and unexplained series of deaths among the prized beasts, her mother is held accountable and sentenced to death, thus setting the scene for the coming story.

The novel follows Elin’s journey from abandoned orphan to rural apprentice and her later move into a prestigious sanctuary for Royal Beasts, the airborne, wolf-like creatures that guard the realm’s royal family. Here she discovers her unique talent for animal care and an innate ability to connect with the beasts outside the strict and often harsh rules governing the “traditional” methods of rearing. Charged with the responsibility of nursing an infant beast back to health, Elin soon finds that she is able to establish a never-before-seen connection with the animal, setting her apart from her peers at the school and putting her in often precarious and complicated dilemmas which test her loyalty, morality and honesty.

Uehashi projects immense creativity and vision, creating a fantasy world of epic proportions. She incorporates culture, history and ecology so authentically that the story feels like a tangible reality for the reader. The depth and definition of her character creation makes the immense cast far more manageable, with every individual helping to drive the story forward.

Elin’s character is perhaps the most profound, with her humanity and unique ability to communicate with the animals in a way that the other professional carers cannot fully understand leading to suspicion, competition and circumstances in which her innocence and purity are at risk of being exploited by the more sinister, self-gratifying motives of the other characters.  Aside from the dramatic fantasy setting, this is fundamentally a coming-of-age story, following Elin’s adventure from bleak beginnings to grand and unique achievement.

This literary contribution from Pushkin Press is another wonderful piece of Japanese literature, artfully translated by Cathy Hirano, exposing another talented and hugely popular author to a much wider, international readership.

 

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