Darkbeast, by Morgan Keyes

Morgan KeyesDarkbeast [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], began as a short story in the anthology Fantastic Companions, edited by Julie Czerneda. Which now has me thinking how cool it would be to try to do the same thing with my own story from that anthology… But that’s completely off topic, sorry. I blame this cold, which has turned my brain into overripe cauliflower today.

In Keyes’ story, the companions in question are darkbeasts, creatures given to each newborn by the gods to take the children’s negative feelings and impulses into themselves. For example, when our protagonist Keara disobeys her mother, she’s sent to her darkbeast Caw, a crow who takes Keara’s disobedience into himself. This arrangement lasts until the child’s 12th birthday, at which time the child is expected to kill his or her darkbeast as part of a religious ceremony marking their transition into adulthood.

But unlike most children, Keara loves her darkbeast. She loves their telepathic bond, the comfort and companionship Caw provides. So when the time comes to kill Caw, she refuses. She flees her village, the only home she’s known, and joins up with the Travelers (actors and storytellers who tour from one town to another.)

Caw tends to steal the spotlight. He’s fun, always demanding snacks and treats, and always accepting Keara and all of her faults. But keeping him alive violates one of the core laws of the priesthood, and if the Inquisitors catch Keara, both she and Caw will suffer.

This is a YA middle grade book, relatively short, quick-paced, and easy to read. But I found myself wishing it was longer, with a bit more exploration and discussion of the world, the gods, the religion, the magic… I wanted to know more about how and why things worked the way they did. The structure of the novel means we discover things along with Keara, and many of the revelations don’t show up until the very end of the book.

The book tends to raise questions obliquely, circling around the true roles of the darkbeasts, the place of the Inquisitors, and more. But those questions, while thematically central, are often a step removed from the plot. Keara makes friends and enemies among the Travelers, learns their ways, shares their urgency to create a new and daring performance. And in the midst of those conflicts and struggles, we see how the darkbeasts fit into the children’s lives, and the cost those children pay when they kill their darkbeasts and become adults.

Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but a part of me wishes the story had addressed some of those questions more directly. But it’s not until the end when we finally rip the curtain aside. Which really makes me hope there’s a second book starting where this one left off. (Morgan Keyes – if you’re reading this, that was a hint! ;-) )

ETA: Keyes has confirmed a sequel. Darkbeast Rebellion will be coming out on September 24, 2013.

Who else has read this one, and what did you think?