Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

An Unexpected Music: The Beast Player

Review by Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

Fans of Nahoko Uehashi have had a long wait for another book in English translation from the internationally acclaimed fantasy author since the publication of the second volume of the Moribito series in 2009. The Beast Player is not a continuation of that, but the first English entry in an entirely new story that already spans four volumes in Japanese. Available as of March 1st from Pushkin Press, The Beast Player collects the first two volumes of the series with translation into English courtesy of Cathy Hirano, who also translated the Moribito books.

Right: Nahoko Uehashi (Goodreads)

The Beast Player follows the story of Elin, the green-eyed daughter of a “beast doctor” who looks after the Toda—massive, scaled creatures ridden into battle by the Toda warriors. Elin and her mother’s eyes mark them as members of a secretive tribe of wanderers called the Ahlyo, though her mother renounced her tribal affiliations to live amongst the Toda Stewards.

In the first half of the book, we learn how Elin comes to leave her home and settle into a new life under the care of Joeun, a lapsed academic who has taken up beekeeping. We are also introduced to some of the other major players in the world: the Yojeh, an empress who acts as the political and spiritual leader of the land, and the Aluhan, a duke who commands armies faithful to the Yojeh to protect their borders. The second half follows Elin as she rises through the ranks of students at Kazalumu, a sanctuary where they care for Royal Beasts—fantastical creatures that look something like giant wolves with wings.

Along the way, we occasionally step into the viewpoint of other characters, such as Ialu, one of a cohort of bodyguards who serve the Yojeh for life (a life often cut short by an assassin’s arrow—not all is well in the Yojeh’s realm), and Esalu, the headmistress at the sanctuary. Those with difficulty keeping the large cast of characters straight will be happy to hear there is a list at the beginning of the book that includes a family tree for the Yojeh’s royal family.

Uehashi’s story is an intriguing blend of many elements that will be familiar to fans of contemporary western fantasy—a strong female lead, a school for gifted students, the challenges of taming fantastical creatures—and other details that will feel more specifically Japanese, like meals of steamed rice and miso, and an emperor considered by many of her subjects to be divine.

One of the cornerstones of fantasy is worldbuilding, and here The Beast Player does not disappoint. Perhaps taking cues from her earlier work as an anthropologist, Uehashi lays out the tribal affiliations and politics of her world with clarity and depth. Class plays a large role in the story as well, with details such as dress and occupation following the internal logic of a carefully crafted fictional society. This enables the main narrative thread following Elin’s attempts at inter-species communication with the Royal Beasts via playing a hand-made harp to function as a kind of allegory for communication across barriers of class and race.

Language is an aspect of fantasy worldbuilding that can either be treated as an afterthought or, as is the case in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an integral part of the story. In The Beast Player, we learn early on that the name for Elin’s people, the Ahlyo, is a bastardization of their true name, “Ao-Loh,” meaning “Guardians of the Oath.” The oath, we are told, was sworn by their people to never repeat a terrible mistake made long in the past. This is the first glimpse we are given of a secret history that is frequently hinted at throughout the story, the knowledge of which ultimately comes to play a role in informing our heroine’s actions.

Somewhat challenging is the terminology in the book. In the opening, many aspects of caring for the Toda are described with capitalized words: the Ponds, the Chambers, the Law. There are also words in an indeterminate language, such as the tokujisui medicine administered to the Toda, and political terms—the Chief Steward, the Aluhan—that can be a bit confusing at first. Here again, I turned back to the list of characters at the beginning to keep everything straight.

Thankfully, the prose is more than strong enough to carry the reader through those initial speed bumps. Hirano is a gifted stylist, and the combination of her deft word choice with Uehashi’s evocative images keeps the story flowing while bringing us moments of lyrical beauty.

In a market glutted with streamlined page-turners that take more hints from Hollywood than the classics of fantasy, The Beast Player, with its leisurely paced, meandering storytelling, can feel at times like a throwback. And yet, opening a doorway to different takes on familiar genres is exactly the aim of Pushkin Children’s Books. Given the alternative of shelves laden with dystopian Hunger Games clones I’m glad that Pushkin and Hirano opened that door and let The Beast Player, like its titular character, make an unexpected music of its own.

Right: Cathy Hirano (Skye Hohmann for BookBlast®)

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