The Beast Player
Author: 上橋菜穂子 Uehashi Nahoko
Reading level: Upper elementary. All kanji have furigana, but Uehashi uses a pretty rich vocabulary.
My rating: 4/5.
Speaking of anime adaptations, the first episode of this one airs tonight on NHK.
Erin lives alone with her mother Soyon; they are slightly outcast from the village where they live because Soyon comes from the tribe of Allyo, a nomadic people charged with preventing the reoccurrence of a terrible tragedy that happened some time long ago. Soyon had married out of her tribe, but is now widowed, and she has a job caring for the "Touda," battle serpents who "cannot and must not be tamed," but are tamed nonetheless by a soundless flute.
When all the "fangs" (the front-line troops) among the battle serpents suddenly die, Soyon is suspected of their murder and sentenced to death.
I liked this very much. The emotional tone reminds me of some of Miyazaki's fantasies, especially Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi -- a preteen girl, separated from her parents and trying to make her own way in the world, but with a sense of security provided by caring guardians. There's also a deep concern with the environment, and the relationship between people and animals, that reminds me of Miyazaki. Uehashi creates a very deep and real and interesting fantasy world. The only quibble I have is that the beekeeping sections seem to go on for very long. This was originally published as a hardcover in two volumes, and it's being reissued in paperback now with more volumes, so I imagine that affects the pacing.
By the way, Uehashi Nahoko is also the author of the "Moribito" series, which is being published in English.