This book has a very pretty cover but a rather awkward title.
Binary confusion seems to be the running undercurrent of The Beast Is An Animal, with interesting fantasy elements and surprisingly complex characters combatting a dismal sense of pacing and the obligatory romance. As I read, I kept thinking, "Oh, now I'm loving this!" and then I would turn the page and think, "No! What is this? Stop!" Overall, the ideas were very interesting, and ironically, the book would have benefited from a stronger editor (the author is an editor). The beast is an animal, the author is an editor, and the plot is kind of a mess.
I cannot dismiss The Beast Is An Animal out of hand, because I really enjoyed parts of it, and I can see the potential in it. It also led me down an internet rabbit-hole about Welsh and Welsh spelling--but more on that later.
*Warning: Spoilers aplenty*
Alys hates that she has to stay in bed all night while creeping things creep and cause her to worry. If she could just confront them, it would be so much easier. So one night, she decides to wander her village and see what actually happens at night. In the field, she encounters two girls--twins--who exude power. They look at her, realize she is unafraid, and leave her untouched. But they proceed into the village and consume the souls of every adult over the age of 15 and send the children into a deep, magical sleep.
When Alys wakes up, the sun is high in the sky, and things in her normally bustling village of Gwenith are silent. A traveler named Pawl finds her and takes her home, only to find the cold bodies of her Mam and Dad. Eventually, Alys and the other children of Gwenith are taken to a neighboring village called Defaid. Alys begs to be able to go with Pawl to the lake country with other Travelers, but the High Elder of the village refuses, and places her with a local family.
Being given a new set of parents and commanded to call them Mother and Father isn't really a great way to start a new life, but Alys soon discovers hidden depths in Mother, who always seems so pinched and cold. Alys is forbidden from going into the fforest, for that is the lair of the Beast, who controls the Soul Eaters, but she goes anyway. She is a wanderer, and there she meets the Beast for the first time. He's nothing like as he is depicted in the High Elder's book of the Shepherd's Word: frolicking amdist flames and gobbling up human souls. The Beast is the fforest, is life on Byd. It is power and fury but also healing and peace. But it is something that the Elders fear, so they demonize it.
As Alys grows, she remembers the Beast, and knows that she will meet it again, for he told her a secret: she is like Angelica and Benedicta, the Soul Eaters. And Alys is afraid of what is inside her. But she will have to use her power, because by eating all theses souls, the twins have created a giant hole in the fabric of the universe that will gradually eat the whole continent and everyone will die.
The Elders decide to build a Gate, nominally to keep the Beast and Soul Eaters out, but really to keep the people in and afraid. Everyone crowds inside the Gate into tiny houses, and a palisade is built for watchkeeping. The Elders force the children of Gwenith to patrol at night, no matter their age. In ice and sleet and rain, they must walk the slippery, unguarded walkways. But sometimes, a Gwenith child goes into the fforest, never to be seen again.
Years pass, and Alys is now fifteen--close to the age when she will become a Soul Eater. When she goes to find healing herbs to help Mother, she stumbles on two Defaid teens romping in an abandoned house. They threaten her, and in her anger, she almost eats the girl's soul. Oops. They march her back to the village, where a good ol' witch hunt ensues, and Alys is tortured and humiliated and sentenced to be burned alive.
In the night, Father rescues her and sends her away, and she stumbles, frozen, to her old village. There, she is rescued by the Traveler Pawl and his wife and apprentice, who is Hot. Hot Apprentice, named Cian, is from the mountains, and has brown skin. He and Alys immediately fall in love. Woohoo. There's lots of frantic traveling and almost dying in the latter third of the book. Eventually, she must confront Angelica and Benedicta, as well as her own powers.
My main issues with The Beast is an Animal are the uneven pacing and rushed and unbelievable resolutions to problems that the characters face. Let's talk about plot pacing first.
The first 90 pages of the book follow Alys as a seven year old girl, from the loss of her parents to the building of the Gate. For two more chapters, she is a twelve year old girl who sees her friend Delwyn, a young boy, captivated and then taken by the Soul Eaters. Then, she is fifteen. It takes several chapters for her trial to conclude, during which we are treated to highly unpleasant descriptions of torture. Then Alys runs away and almost freezes to death, upon which she is rescued by Pawl and Beti, who have become alcoholics (I'm not quite sure what this does for their character development except show them to be human?). She falls in love with Cian and they all go back to the happy marshes of the Travelers, where women wear pants and loose hair and do what they want. It's like a giant commune. But lo! Alys feels compelled to travel to the end of her world to fight the evil Soul Eaters, which she does. She meets the Beast and Benedicta, who has defected from her sister's power. Alys convinces the ghost-thing of her runaway friend, who has become a pseudo Soul Eater, to jump into the Giant Evil Hole and find peace in oblivion. But she can't convince the sisters to do the same. Thankfully, they realizes that maybe they should just destroy each other with their power, so they do that and poof into nothingness. Alys ... didn't really use her soul eating power to do anything except make herself very large (this part was very confusing to me, and no matter how many times I reread it, I cannot parse it). Then Alys goes home and everyone is happy and she is at peace with herself. Yay!
I had plot whiplash at the end.
Many plot points are either left unexplained or explained so rapidly that it's practically a deus ex machina. For example, there's a long scene with Alys helping Mother with a woman who's just given birth. Alys puts her hand on the woman's stomach and feels a wrongness in it. After Mother gives the lady special tea to expel the afterbirth, Alys no longer feels the wrongness. Mother confides that she too has this power, but must hide it lest the Elders burn her as a witch. However, Alys never uses this particular power again. Why write a whole scene about it, then?
Delwyn's defection to the side of the Soul Eaters is also a puzzling development. Why don't they kill him outright? Why does he float around with them for several years? What is he, exactly?
If the Giant Evil Hole in the universe was caused by Benedicta and Angelica's soul eating romps, why does it close by receiving only three souls (Delwyn, Angelica, and Benedicta)? That seems ... uneven.
The way that van Arsdale distinguishes between the villagers and the mountain people made me very uncomfortable. It makes sense to me that on a continent there would be various ethnic groups with different skin colors. The villagers are all white, and the mountain people are brown, and the lake people are a mix of everything (because hippie commune, remember?) Cian's "skin was the brown of buckwheat honey" but the villagers "only came in shades of milk." Can we please stop with the food analogies for skin? Also ... what are shades of milk? Milk is ... milky? Are we going from like fresh milk to whole milk to skimmed milk to spoiled milk? And goodness knows I am pasty pale but I am definitely not milk colored. How do the villagers work outside without being completely roasted by the sun? Plus, Cian is the only speaking person of color in the entire book.
There were, however, elements that I enjoyed. The creepy Elders are straight up out of The Crucible (I expected Alys to croak out "More weight!" during her trial), and Mother's secret rebellion against them made me fall, rather unexpectedly, in love with her character. Later, Alys discovers that Mother has never brought a baby to term, but has had many miscarriages. Yet, she has never been bitter with Alys and has always treated her well, teaching her the ways of a wise woman (I can't think of any other way to describe what Mother and Alys do). I also liked the influence of Welsh spelling in the book, although I'm not sure what, if anything, it has to do with the story. I just like playing with language. And finally, the Beast. I loved the Beast, and wish that it had more to say and do in the story. It's kind but enigmatic, a sort of Pan-god of this continent, protecting nature and the lives of the people.
The first part of the story, with Alys as a child, was especially captivating, contrasting her innocence and childish bravery with the unreasonable terror of the religious fanatics and their hypocrisy. I wish that the book had been split into two parts: Alys at the age of seven and Alys at the age of fifteen. The romance with Cian was not necessary for the story to develop, and we needed more explanations of what Alys' powers really were and how she might use them in the future.
In spite of my criticisms, I am looking forward to van Arsdale's next book, for I think she has creative ideas that just need to be expressed in a more satisfying way.
Also, the book should really just lose the rhyme about the Beast being an animal. It's clunky and awkward.
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher. Quotes may be subject to change.