Elin’s mother, Sohyon, cares for the Toda, her kingdom’s army. When they die unexpectedly, she is blamed for it. Elin’s grandfather makes it clear that he blames her and has concerns about her going back to when she married his son: Sohyon is an Alyho, a race of people that most of the townspeople disapprove of and link to the use of sorcery and magical gifts.
Elin seems to have an early affinity with the creatures, knowing things that a girl her age should not. After the serpents die, her mother cooks her a special meal and starts to give her advice on ways she might survive in the wilderness. Elin does not realise the importance of this until the following day her mother is convicted of the death of the Toda and sentenced to their judgement, a cruel punishment that involves her being tied up, slashed across the abdomen with a knife and thrown to the Toda for them to devour her. It is a haunting punishment, and a scene that has played on my mind many times since reading it.
Elin acts bravely and tries to save her mother. Her grandfather watches from the shore, realising his granddaughter is about to die trying to save her mother, and does nothing. He believes that it is best that Elin dies too. He is a cruel man. Sohyon’s last act is to commit a “mortal sin” to save her daughter. She warns her daughter to never do what she is about to, and Elin finds herself being rescued and taken away as her mother is devoured. It is a very emotional scene and my heart broke for poor little Elin. It is not until many years that Elin comes to truly understand what happened this day.
She is saved by Joeun, a curious character who keeps bees and lives in the mountains. He is kind. He takes Elin in, cares for her and teaches her everything he knows. The pair are passionate about wildlife and Elin has a very curious mind and innovative answers and solutions which seem to be instinctive. She struggles with her mother’s death (given the circumstances, how could she not?), and she often questions why her mother chose to die rather than escape with her. She lives comfortably and happily with Joeun for many years until he leaves to return to teaching. Elin decides that she wants to be a Beast doctor and look after the Royal Beasts and Joeun helps her to achieve this through his contact Esalu, though Elin passes the entrance exam entirely on her own merit, which I think is a very important part of the story: everything Elin achieves is because of her curious mind, her instincts and her determination. Nothing comes easily to her.
At the school, Elin is befriended by the lovely, but very excitable, Yuyan. Esaulu is a difficult character to figure out, she is sometimes very lenient with Elin and allows her more freedom than other pupils might get, but at others she is strict and harsh to Elin. School is not easy for Elin: the Beasts in captivity are different to those she has seen in the wild. They use the Silent Whistle to control them which Elin despises and she determines to find a way to work with the beasts without using it, although this is not always the safest approach. This is one of the main threads of the story: the difference between wild beasts and those in captivity.
“To see beasts controlled by humans is a miserable thing. In the wild, they would be masters of their own destiny”
Elin is smarter than most others at her school. She has stronger insticts and her methods are unconventional. They lead her to be allowed to care for the Royal Beast cub, Leelan, and to her building a strong relationship with the cub, but they also attract a lot of attention. Her methods are similar to the those that she saw her mother use to care for the Toda, but she is warned that her approach is dangerous and could lead to a lot of unwanted problems. The Royal Beasts, much like the Toda are political tools and Elin is swiftly becoming involved in something that she doesn’t understand and wants no part of. When the Yojeh visits her Beasts, things end badly and Elin finds herself swiftly wrapped in something very dangerous.
This is a brilliant and emotional read, with a very strong political element. I absolutely loved it and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy or good political novels.