Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes

“But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.” Leviticus 16:10

Darkbeast takes this concept of an animal making atonement or taking away sin and transplants it into a fantasy world somewhat similar to ancient (pagan) Greece. In Keara’s world, however, every child has a darkbeast, a creature that takes the child’s dark deeds and emotions and offers absolution with the formulaic phrase, “I take your (rebellion, pride, anger, etc). Forget it. It is mine.” Even as the scapegoat symbolically took the sins of the nation of Israel into the wilderness, Keara’s darkbeast, the raven Caw takes her bitterness and jealously and gives her in return a magical feeling of “lightness as if I were floating like a tuft of thistledown on a spring breeze.”

Most “normal” children tolerate and even hate their darkbeasts, long to leave them behind and become adults, but Keara says she cannot imagine “never again hearing my darkbeast’s voice, never again listening to his well-worn formula. I could not imagine what my life would be like after I became a proper woman among my people on my twelfth nameday. After I had sacrificed Caw on the cool onyx altar in the center of Bestius’s godhouse.” I couldn’t decide if Keara’s affinity for her darkbeast symbolized hanging on to sin or to childhood or to a treasured source of friendship and forgiveness, but the idea was intriguing and gave me much food for thought.

There’s an explanation for the whole darkbeast cycle of forgiveness and atonement in the final chapter of the book, but that explanation was less satisfying to me, as a Christian, than my own thoughts about the possible meanings and ramifications of the concepts in the book. However, don’t think that Darkbeast is mostly a philosophical tale about sin and sacrifice; actually, it’s mostly just a cracking good story about a girl, Keara, who runs away from home to join a troupe of traveling players and to find herself and her place in the world, a coming of age story set in a fantasy world that bears enough resemblance to our own to be identifiable and yet has enough differences to keep it unpredictable.

In the last third of the book there’s also a drama competition where the actors present their best plays before the ruler of the country and before the gods, reinforcing the similarity to ancient Greece. The Greeks had their Great Dionysia in which playwrights such as Aechylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes competed for prizes and glory. The contest in this book, performed for the twelve gods of Duodecia, is quite similar to that of the ancient Greeks.

Darkbeast tells an excellent story, and one I would like to follow into the next volume of the series.

If you want to know more before or after you read the book:
Here Morgan Keyes writes about the inspiration for the twelve gods of Duodecia.
Here she discusses rites of passage such as Keara’s obligation to sacrifice her darkbeast, Caw.
More at Morgan Keyes’ official Darkbeast website.

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