One of my greatest pleasures is to walk into something cold, knowing nothing about it, and come out the other side pleasantly surprised. I knew zip about Jyu-oh-sei when I cracked the shrinkwrap and fired it up, but that only made the surprise all the more compelling. For lack of a more relevant way to put it, Jyu-oh-sei seems a bit like an anime incarnation of the kinds of SF that Larry Niven or Frederik Pohl might have written back in the Seventies. It starts with a few hard-science (or at least not-soft-science) premises, sticks some strong characters into the middle of it, stirs well, and lets things happen.
Centuries into the future, mankind has colonized other worlds. Among them is Chimaera, a planet where human beings live only by dint of their stubbornness as a species. Temperatures vary from brutal cold to vicious heat, and the only other life forms are carnivorous plants. No one goes there unless they absolutely have to—and, in fact, most people don’t. It’s a prison world, a dumping ground for the human garbage of the universe. It’s also not officially supposed to exist, for reasons above and beyond it being a galactic Riker’s Island.
Two young men have ended up on Chimaera through no fault of their own. They are Thor and Rai, twin sons who narrowly missed being murdered when a team of assassins came gunning for their father. Terrified and alone, they won’t last very long on the surface, and sure enough they’re separated when they almost fall into the maw of one of the more voracious man-eating vegetables out there. Their dispositions predict their fates: Thor is the more angry and determined of the two, and a born survivor even if he doesn’t realize it. Rai, a milquetoast who can’t imagine being away from his brother’s side for more than a minute at a time, is probably doomed.
What civilization there is on Chimaera is organized into “Rings”, or tribes, each with their own particular territory. The strongest of all the leaders of each ring, the Beast King, is the only one on the planet who has the privilege to leave and return with impunity. Thor’s convinced becoming the Beast King is his only shot at escape, impossible as it may seem. And so, armed with nothing more than an energy knife and his survival instinct, he sets out to climb to the top—on the backs of others, one would imagine.
As strong and adaptable as Thor is, he’s at a serious disadvantage: not because of his relative youth (he’s barely in his teens at the start of the story), but because of his conscience. The idea that he left his brother to die haunts him, and he is perennially disturbed by the prospect of having to kill his way to the top. I was worried that the inadvertent moral of the story would be “It’s OK to kill your way to the top as long as you feel guilty about it”, but Beast King is, thankfully, a touch smarter than that.
Two people become close allies in Thor’s rise to the top. The first is Tiz, a spunky young girl who finds Thor attractive—not just in a frivolous romantic sense, but in what amounts to a far more pragmatic way. She infers, quite correctly, that a man this strong and adaptable (and, let’s face it, handsome) would make a great husband and mate. Thor has no plans to start a family: his long-term plans are to get the hell out of Dodge. He also isn’t terribly enamored of Tiz at first—she finds his moral stances more amusing and strange than compelling, which irritates him—but over time he realizes someone of that degree of devotion is going to be hard to find and even tougher to replace.
The other ally is “Third”, a lanky post-adolescent with a smile that hints at many things going unsaid. As his name implies, he’s third from the top in the ring where he and Tiz (and now Thor) live. “Third” is not just his title; it’s his whole identity, as he is quite proud to explain. He sees great potential in Thor, and cheerfully agrees to help the younger man in his rise to the top. This involves, among other things, loading the dice in a duel with their ring’s current “Top” (leader), but this is one of the few times Thor seems untroubled by such maneuvering. (The story does stack the deck a bit here; the current Top is a cruel jerk and more than worth getting rid of.)
What happens after this, and through a little more than the second half of the series, is the real meat of the story. Years go by. Thor, Tiz and “Third” have formed their own ring. The throne of the Beast King seems within reach, no longer a mad dream. Then, one by one, revelations come to the fore. One is that Rai may not be dead after all, and may in fact have turned out to be even more of a survivor type than his own brother. Another involves the ultimate purpose of Chimaera, which you can bet has nothing to do with being a prison planet. And finally there is Thor’s own legacy and importance, another one of those things that’s best left to reveal itself (even if you can probably predict it on your own).
The best thing about Beast King isn’t the setting or the action, but how it is far more strongly character-driven than I expected it to be. It’s easy for any story to fall into the trap of picking a foregone conclusion for its characters and hustling them towards it without thinking about what they would really do. Here, most everyone acts and thinks like human beings and not puppets of the plot, and it’s a welcome relief. This goes double for the female characters (including and apart from Tiz herself), who have their own agendas and aren’t just being dragged along for the ride.
The last couple of episodes, I have to admit, are something of a mess. A deus ex machina disaster is used to force things along; the fate of at least one and possibly two major characters are glossed over; a couple of long-standing questions are swept under the rug entirely. But they don’t manage to ruin the momentum of the story as a whole, and when it was all over I was surprised at how absorbing it was.
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