YA fantasy novel The Beast Warrior takes place about a decade after its award-winning prequel, The Beast Player.* In The Beast Warrior, mixed-heritage protagonist Elin is now a full-fledged Beast Player (a field that combines veterinarian with naturalist) and has had a son with her husband, Ialu. As the book opens, their feudal, agrarian nation is teetering on the edge of war with its neighbors. Elin is still the only person who can communicate with the ferocious Royal Beasts, using a special harp. This makes her a much-desired, potential political pawn.
The Beast Warrior is driven by two major elements from traditional SF/fantasy world-building: xenobiology and the arc of history/sweep of civilizations. The plot revolves around two major mysteries in this world’s biology. The first, which was left unsolved at the end of the previous volume, is why there had been a recent die-off of the Toda, a fearsomely huge water creature that Elin’s nation breeds and rides. It turns out that part of the reason for that die-off is based on deliberately lost, now-forbidden knowledge. And the reason that knowledge is now forbidden? That is the key to the second mystery, which has become shrouded in the mists of time in Elin’s nation: why long ago there had once been a huge devastation when the Toda and their only natural predators, the Royal Beasts, had met on the human battlefield. Elin solves the first fairly early on using the naturalist’s toolkit of the scientific method and observation. But she is tormented by the second mystery and only uncovers its solution at the denouement, with her son Jesse playing a huge role in its discovery.
Despite its focus on universal, societal themes, The Beast Warrior is centered in interpersonal drama, individual characters, and the thoughts, ethical dilemmas, moral imperatives, and feelings that lie beneath surface appearances. These more intimate concerns of love and family vs. country and duty ground the narrative, and the story really takes off when Uehashi brings Elin and her family into the foreground.
A bit of patience and love for the fascinating world built in The Beast Player is immensely rewarded once The Beast Warrior turns to the personal, as The Beast Warrior is a complex tale and slow to build, much like its predecessor. Note that while The Beast Warrior will work as a standalone read, as the references to the back story in the prequel are deftly explained, it still works even better if one has recently read the prequel.
In fantasy novels, worldbuilding plus mystery plus engaging characters make for a fascinating read. To have biology and science anchor the plot makes this book and series intensely cool—and a joy.
The Beast Warrior
Written by Nahoko Uehashi
Translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano
In the UK: 2020, Pushkin Children’s Books, ISBN: 9781782692409
In North America: 2020, Henry Holt and Co/Holt Books for Young Readers, ISBN:9781250307484
*Read Avery Fischer Udagawa’s 2019 review of The Beast Player for GLLI.
Read David Jacobson’s 2018 interview with translator Cathy Hirano for GLLI.
Read an excerpt.
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces, Super Sisters, Bibi and Miyu, Undead Messiah #3 (TOKYPOP, 2020).