Nahoko Uehashi’s 2006 The Beast Player, published as Kemono no Sōja Ichi: Tōda hen, is the first volume of her Beast Player series. Cathy Hirano provided the 2018 English translation.
Despite entrenched distrust between the Ao-Loh and the Aluhan, two peoples of the same land, Elin’s Ao-Loh mother and her Aluhan father fell in love and married. Elin was the result. Elin could have been a barely tolerated freak, grudgingly accepted by the Aluhan thanks to her mother’s job tending the Toda (the great lizards the Aluhan ride into battle, serving1 Lyoza’s spiritual leader, the Yojeh). Instead, her life takes an altogether different direction.
It begins with mass death among the Toda.
The Aluhan are inclined to see every misfortune as a crime deserving punishment. In this case, Elin’s mother is the designated scapegoat, since the Toda died in her care. As it happens, Elin’s mother deliberately withheld crucial information about the Toda, knowing she was risking her life doing so — but the Aluhan don’t know that. They need a scapegoat and she’s convenient. Elin’s mother is sentenced to death.
The mother then steals a Toda and escapes with Elin. The mother dies, but Elin survives the journey and is adopted by a humble beekeeper named Joeun.
A former schoolteacher, Joeun educates Elin and encourages the young girl’s curiosity about the natural world. When circumstances call Joeun back to his family in town, it is only natural that he finds Elin a position suitable for her training and temperament: a trainee keeper for the great predatory birds known as Royal Beasts.
Royal Beasts belong to the land’s spiritual leader, the Yojeh. Keepers are supposed to follow doctrine laid down centuries ago by the first Yojeh. Most of the beast-tenders would never think of doing otherwise. Elin enters the trade without having been carefully indoctrinated. Unlike her fellow keepers, Elin has observed the Royal Beasts in the wild. These facts and her natural curiosity give Elin insights into Royal Beast behavior that allows her to form a close bond with one of the Beasts, something no previous keeper had thought possible.
Elin has independently reinvented the secret Ao-Loh animal lore, which has been kept secret from both keepers and from the Aluhan for fear of misuse. Now the secret is out, at a most inconvenient time. Escalating tensions between the theocracy that serves the Yojeh directly and the Aluhan warriors who guard the kingdom from external enemies have brought the country to the brink of civil war. Elin’s training could turn the conflict into one that could devastate the land.
In a Western SF novel, Elin’s bold choices would almost certainly make her a sympathetic Promethean figure, providing the masses with valuable knowledge shamefully concealed by blinkered theocrats to protect their own power. In this case, there is a good reason that all of the lore she rediscovers is secret. She makes a series of terrible choices out of good intentions, even after being warned about the possible consequences. In her defence, Elin repents once events begin to spiral out of control and does her best to make amends.
The Ao-Loh and the Yojeh have adopted a policy of security by obscurity because if they explained why they are doing what they are doing, they would reveal that Royal Beasts and Toda are, if improperly used, weapons of mass destruction that can transform whole kingdoms into wastelands. That may sound like the sort of thing that people would avoid if they were sensible. As we know, people are not sensible (note the large real-world arsenals of nuclear weapons).
Many works about smart animals depict them as fur-suited humans. In this case, the Royal Beasts are very smart, as animals go, but they do have significant blind spots, not least of which is their short time horizon. There is no use trying to sway a Royal Beast with the possibility of long-term consequences, because for a Royal Beast long term is a few minutes. Tomorrow may as well not exist. Given their impulse control issues, this means that treating a Royal Beast as if it were your fur-baby is a good way to come up short an arm.
I prefer the author’s Moribito books, but this series is engaging enough that I am sure to buy the next volume, particularly as this will encourage the publisher to put out more books by Uehashi.
1: The Aluhan sometimes engage in warfare even though the Yojeh would prefer that they wouldn’t. The Yojeh’s faith has strict rules against bloodshed. The Aluhan’s founder volunteered to defend the kingdom against invaders despite the fact this would make his army unclean. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable sacrifice. Centuries later, the current Aluhan don’t think it’s fair they should die in service to the kingdom while being considered tainted pariahs. To complicate matters, the Duke of the Aluhan and the Yojeh don’t always agree on what’s in the best interest of the kingdom.