Nahoko Uehashi’s 2020 The Beast Warrior is the second book in her Beast Player young-adult secondary-universe fantasy series. Cathy Hirano’s translation was published in 2020, which makes me optimistic that more Uehashi books will be translated in the near future.
Eleven years after the events of The Beast Player, the kingdom of Lyoza is still wrestling with the repercussions of a controversial marriage: Lyoza’s religious leader, the Yojeh, married the kingdom’s Aluhan military commander. This was intended to heal the rift between the kingdom’s two great factions, but many subjects are alarmed by the unconventional move.
Meanwhile, Elin, Lyoza’s keeper of the Royal Beasts (whom readers may remember from Beast Player) has her own problems. Once again, mass death shapes her life.
The product of a mixed marriage between an Ao-Loh woman and an Aluhan man, Elin possesses secret Ao-Loh lore concerning the Toda lizards on which the kingdom depends for its security. Although her primary duties involve the Yojeh’s Royal Beasts, she is the logical person to consult when all of the Toda in a Toda breeding facility suddenly die.
As discovered in the previous book, the kingdom lore re both Royal Beasts and Toda has been pruned; the pruners hoped to prevent a repeat of a nearly forgotten apocalypse that destroyed the previous Lyoza homeland. While Elin knows more than most about Royal Beasts and Toda, there is much she does not know. She starts an intensive research program to find out why these Toda in particular died when they did.
Lyoza’s founders did their best to construct a government that would balance political and religious forces and prevent open strife (1). Despite this, the kingdom only narrowly avoided a military takeover (vide Genpei War) through the aforementioned union of its religious and military heads.
Not only that … stasis is impossible when one has pushy neighbours. Consider, for example, Lahza.
Lahza’s warriors have their eyes on some border regions that have been recently conquered by Lyoza. The inhabitants are restive. Only the threat of Lyoza’s Toda-riding warriors keeps them quiet. The Lahzan’s cunning plan: kidnap a Lyozan Toda breeder willing to trade his secrets for his life, then covertly create a force of Lahzan Toda-riders. Which they have done.
Lyoza is now quite vulnerable, as it has never before faced an equal foe and has little in the way of training or strategy to resist one.
Elin knows enough secret lore to know that Royal Beasts can rout Toda at will. She also knows that doing this is what led to that ancient apocalypse. What she does not know is why it led to apocalypse. This means she has an unpleasant choice: do nothing, thus ensuring Lyoza will lose territory, or act — and perhaps doom everyone.
As she has done in her other novels, the author explores the gulf that can appear between a nation’s supposed ideals and the means by which they enforce them. Lyoza’s founders dreamed of a stable, peaceful nation that would avoid the mistakes of the past. This did not prevent the kingdom from conquering weak neighbouring lands. Furthermore, the reliance on draconian laws and heavy-handed enforcement has created a population that is always quietly eying the nearest exit. Whole regions are primed to rebel as soon as they think they can get away with it.
It’s also clear that Lyoza has prioritized political control over prosperity. Most of the citizens live in isolated towns without much in the way of educational or economic resources. An oppressed peasantry, in other words. Famines are frequent.
One gets the impression the author has real world models in mind.
Although the zoology is rather contrived, the plot is convincing, centered as it is on the mismatch between ideal states as we imagine them and the realities of human nature and the world in which we live. Uehashi’s characters are well chosen to make readers care how the novel’s Gordian knot is resolved. There doesn’t seem to be room left for sequels but … it was my impression that no sequel was intended for The Beast Player, and lo! we got one. Perhaps the author will surprise us.
1: One consequence of which was a tendency to adopt draconian penalties, even when the person in question could not possibly have avoided the outcome for which they are being punished.