Elin’s family has an important caring for the fearsome water serpents that form the core of their kingdom’s army. So when some of the creatures mysteriously die, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death as punishment. With her last breath, she manages to send her daughter to safety.
Alone and far from home, Elin soon discovers that she can communicate with both the terrifying water serpents and the majestic flying beasts that guard her queen. This skill gives her great power, but it also involves her in deadly plots that could cost her life. Can she save herself and prevent her beloved beasts from being used as tools of war? Or is there no escaping the terrible battles to come?
The Beast Player was originally published in Japanese in 2006, then in English in 2019. A 50 episode anime aired in 2009 but it was never licensed for Western audiences. The world is deeply rooted in Japanese history and folklore.
The story spans ten years, from ten-year-old Elin learning about giant amphibious lizards from her mom to learning how to care for giant winded mammals called Royal Beasts at beast doctor school. In the middle she lives with a bee keeper and learns about normal honey bees for a while. It reads like a historical and scientific record. We get lots of detail about how to care for the different creatures without getting stung or eaten, what they’re like in the wild versus captivity, and their roles in society.
A couple times the narrative moves to other people in other parts of the country. These become relevant eventually but I’d rather focus on the coming-of-age story.
Child-like wonder and curiosity gradually make way for grim reality and politics. They’re not called “Royal Beasts” for nothing. As someone who enjoys middle grade books, I prefer the younger parts of the story. The latter third gets very intense and stressful. There is a second volume, The Beast Warrior, set a full ten years after the close of The Beast Player. Assuming the tone continues along the same trajectory, I don’t plan to read that one.