Tuesday, March 3, 2020

REVIEW: The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

The Beast Player

In epic YA fantasy about a girl with a special power to communicate with magical beasts and the warring kingdom only she can save.

Elin's family has an important responsibility: caring for the fearsome water serpents that form the core of their kingdom's army. So when some of the beasts mysteriously die, Elin's mother is sentenced to death as punishment. With her last breath she manages to send her daughter to safety.

Alone, far from home, Elin soon discovers that she can talk to both the terrifying water serpents and the majestic flying beasts that guard her queen. This skill gives her great powers, 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 way of escaping the terrible battles to come? 
I'm trying to read all of the Printz books so when this book was awarded a Printz Honor, I picked it up. I liked the book and think it has some fairly interesting fantasy elements, but it did have trouble keeping my attention.

Elin's mother has the enormous responsibility of caring for the Toda, serpent beasts that make up their kingdom's army. When some Toda die in her mother's care, her mother is sentenced to death. Elin is desperate to save her, but her mother ends up saving Elin instead and Elin is swept away, alone. Through the years, Elin gains a new family in an older man and becomes curious about the animals in the kingdom and learning how to communicate with them. She grows close with the animals, but she learns that there may be a reason why people are not supposed to communicate with the beasts.

This is a very different fantasy book than I am used to reading. I loved that it is a Japanese inspired fantasy that was originally published in Japan. I loved the focus on the animals of the world. The book showcases the politics of this fantasy world, but it mainly focuses on how the animals are used in the politics and the relationship between human and beast. Elin takes care of animals differently than others and is able to form a strong bond. I honestly loved seeing her interact with the Royal Beasts (large, flying creatures that can be extraordinarily dangerous). It was one of my favorite parts of the book.

There was some info-dumping in the book and I did occasionally get lost. I was confused by the relationships between different sectors/kingdoms. I wasn't sure if the groups fighting belonged to different countries or just different parts of the same country. I found myself wishing there was a map. The narrative style is also very distant. It's in third-person narration and while it mostly follows Elin, it does jump between other characters from time to time (oftentimes without scene breaks). The book also takes place in a ten-year time span. It starts when Elin is ten and ends when she is around twenty. This made some awkward time jumps and made the pacing feel odd.

Though the book did remind me of classic YA fantasy books. The narrative style reminded more a little of Alanna and other YA fantasy books from that time period. The book also had no romance which I absolutely loved! Instead, we get the fantastic relationship between Elin and the Royal Beasts (again, I loved the animal focus). Elin is also a very smart and resourceful girl. She was hard to relate to at times, but overall she was a great MC. The further along in the book I got though the more distant I felt from Elin.

I have seen complaints in the reviews about the story Elin keeps telling others. Elin is told of a tragedy that befell her kingdom the last time people thought they could communicate with the beasts. While Elin has good intentions, others don't, and she repeats this story multiple times throughout the book. The problem is that we don't hear the story until the very very end of the book. I understand why that was, likely to add some suspense, but it made me feel like I missed something.

Overall, I liked this book. I thought it was a very different fantasy and I loved the focus on animals. Unfortunately, I felt distanced from the characters in the book and the pacing was slow. This made me not enjoy it as much. The book has an open ending, but there will be more published in English. Though I don't think I will continue the series. While I liked this book, I don't feel that immediacy for book two and I just feel like I don't need to know what will happen next.
I hereby give this book
3 Stars
Meaning: I liked it

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