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Nahoko Uehashi’s ‘The Beast Player’: Fantasy grounded in nature

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

“The Beast Player,” by Nahoko Uehashi, proves fantasy novels can work without magic. It’s an engaging tale, refreshingly grounded in nature with nary a wizard in sight.

The Beast Player, by Nahoko Uehashi, Translated by Cathy Hirano.
512 pages
PUSHKIN PRESS, Fiction.

The novel opens with 10-year-old Elin, who must struggle to overcome tragedy after her mother — a beast doctor to a species of weaponized water serpents known as Toda — is sentenced to death. Within multiple plot strands, Uehashi weaves the personal and the political. As we follow Elin’s growth to maturity and her devoted fascination for animals, a coming-of-age narrative emerges and, through this, the novel incorporates devastating political intrigue from various perspectives.

It’s no surprise that Uehashi works as a cultural anthropologist and professor, as the authenticity of her world building truly impresses. In 2014, she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her work as a children’s writer and she also penned the highly popular “Moribito” series.

Although the book features imaginative creatures like the Toda or the Royal Beasts (wolf-like, winged creatures that act as defenders against the Toda army) Uehashi first establishes Elin’s affinity with the animal world by showing her fascination with honeybees. This juxtaposition of the familiar with the fantastical also adds to the authenticity of the narrative. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and utterly immersive, “The Beast Player” uses the genre of fantasy to question the political realities of human tyranny over the natural world.