The Leos are the results of genetic experiments but are now outlawed, under the Messianic Painter they struggle for their right to exist. Painter is a Leo, a genetically engineered combination of man and lion, in a world where his kind are outlawed he strives to survive.
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Loren Casaubon is an ethologist hand-rearing peregrine falcons prior to releasing them into the wild, in a world run by the USE (Union for Social Engineering). It is the USE government that cancels Loren's funding, ending his research. He is offered alternative employment as a tutor to 2 ‘special' children, the son (Sten) and daughter (Mika) of Dr Gregorius, director of the Northern Autonomy. Loren decides to teach these children the truth.
The Leos were an experiment conducted by a previous government, the blending of animal and human DNA. Most of these experiments failed, and of those that succeeded only the Leos, part man part lion could breed. Painter, a big male Leo, is the first that Caddie has ever seen. Caddie is an indenture (a type of slave) and is sold to Painter as his servant to take with him as he travels. Despite herself Caddie is powerfully attracted to Painter and becomes his lover. Caddie and Painter come across a small crashed plane, the only survivor is Reynard, part man-part fox.
Despite his nature, Reynard is a counsellor to Gregorius because of his cunning intelligence. In fact Reynard is planning to destroy Gregorius, subtly manipulating events to his own advantage and to Painter's. Gregorius is killed but Reynard protects his children and Loren. Now the fox advises Painter to head for the Genesis Preserve where he and Caddie will be safe.
Meric Landseer lives in Candy's Mountain, a giant building at the centre of the Genesis Preserve, a place of peace and religion founded by Isidore Candy. Meric goes to observe the pride of Leos which has entered the Preserve. There is disagreement about them in the Mountain because they kill to eat, and while they are part animal they are also part human and kill with rifles. When USE come to find Painter Meric tries to warn him, but it is no good, Painter is captured.
Reynard uses Sten to help the Leo pride. He is manipulating Sten into becoming a leader, but a leader who is not anti-leo. Loren, who has had a falling out with Sten, is unhappy about the whole thing but, reluctantly, goes to find his former pupil.
Painter is experimented on by USE. With the help of Caddie, Reynard engineers Painter's escape, but is killed in the process. In fact it is Caddie who kills the fox, at his own instruction, to create the necessary diversion.
As Reynard planned, Sten and Painter, the two kings, meet. Loren arrives too, to help Sten. Then, quite unexpectedly, Reynard arrives; a clone. Now this small and odd group will set out to change the world.
Although it feels like the first part of a series, Beasts is stand-alone novel and, like most of John Crowley's books is more concerned with its characters and poetic language than with tying up loose ends. It is a truly beautiful piece of writing and, although it leaves you wondering what might happen next, it is a strangely satisfying story of how these characters come to be in this position.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love the Leos, their behaviour as part animal part man seems very real to me.
Best scene in story:
Meric Landseer observes the leos from a distance and sees them acting like a pride of lions, but who carry rifles and walk on their hind legs, it's a very powerful and believable scene.
Opinion about the main character:
Painter's behaviour is very lion-like; he lets women do his work, take off his shoes, bring him food etc. He is a very believable 'lion'.