by Nahoko Uehashi
translated by Cathy Hirano
illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Balsa's life changes unexpectedly when the Second Prince falls into the river and she rescues him. When the Prince's mother, the Second Queen, invites Balsa to the palace, she knows that it's more than gratitude, and indeed, the Second Queen lays a duty on Balsa that she can't refuse: take the Second Prince and protect him. The Second Prince, named Chagum, appears to be possessed by something, and signs point to it being a water demon that was defeated by the Mikado's ancestors two hundred years ago. The Second Queen believes that the Mikado is doing the only thing he believes he can do to save the country: kill his own son. The Second Queen asks Balsa to take Chagum with her, hide him, and protect him from the Mikado's men.
Balsa agrees, and prepares to leave the city with Chagum to head into the mountains. Balsa and Chagum are pursued by the Hunters, an secret and elite group of warriors who serve the Mikado, and their leader, Mon. Meanwhile, back in the royal city, a young Star Reader named Shuga perceives that things with Chagum may not be as they seem. With the blessing of the Master Star Reader, Shuga begins to delve into the archives of the founding of New Yogo, and discovers that the official history of New Yogo may not be entirely accurate. As Balsa and her friend Tanda, an apprentice magic weaver, struggle to save Chagum, Shuga desperately seeks the truth that will save the country.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is an exciting, action packed story that's an easy read. The fight scenes are amazing, and obviously written by someone with more than a passing familiarity with the martial arts. Yet, the book also has surprising depth and solid character development. Balsa and Chagum become more than bodyguard and protectee as they develop a deeper relationship that changes both of them. Chagum grows from being a spoiled and helpless prince to a capable, courageous and compassionate young man, while Balsa's caring for Chagum helps her to begin to come to terms with her past.
The world building is amazing; New Yogo is a fantasy world, but there are definite Japanese cultural influences. Add to that themes relating to class systems, colonialism, and manipulation of information by those in power, and several gorgeous two-page-spread illustrations reminiscent of woodblock prints, and you have a winner. I especially loved that there's no black and white in this book and there's no villain; everyone is doing what he or she believes is best. And as a female martial artist myself, I adore the character of Balsa. I'd love to see this book as a candidate for the Batchelder award.
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