After her mother, a toda doctor, is executed and leaves Elin with a mystery, Elin finds herself in the mountains with a kind man, Joeun, who is a beekeeper. Elin is intrigued by the animals she encounters and does her best to study them. When she is 14, she finds the opportunity to go to school to be a royal beast doctor, and she strongly desires the ability to study the royal beasts after having seen them in the wild.
She studies with Esalu, who provides her the opportunity to try to save a royal beast who is heading for death. In doing so, Elin crosses lines that she did not know existed. As time progresses, Elin learns more about the politics and ethics of the use of animals by the government and is entrenched by even bigger questions.
This was a really intriguing book that keeps you hooked with wanting to know more about the history of animal treatment and the Ao-Loh. It was not quite the YA fantasy I was expecting. This felt more like an adult read with subdued overtones and less action than anticipated. It was a book that I wanted to read until the end, but it took me a long time to work my way through it, because it felt like there was less urgency in the storytelling. This is a story that unfolds slowly and delicately.
The world-crafting is really beautiful and there is a lot of really important themes about connecting with animals and the ethics around their use. While it was not what I expected, it was still a great and unique read.