You’ve never read a fantasy novel like this one! The deep well of Japanese myth merges with the Western fantasy tradition for a novel that’s as rich in place and culture as it is hard to put down.
Balsa was a wanderer and warrior for hire. Then she rescued a boy flung into a raging river — and at that moment, her destiny changed. Now Balsa must protect the boy — the Prince Chagum — on his quest to deliver the great egg of the water spirit to its source in the sea. As they travel across the land of Yogo and discover the truth about the spirit, they find themselves hunted by two deadly enemies: the egg-eating monster Rarunga . . . and the prince’s own father.
Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit is the first in a series of nine novels (and counting) that were extremely popular in Japan and adapted into an anime. The first two books were published and translated in the West, but unfortunately the series was cancelled after that. This is a shame, because Moribito is the most engaging YA series I’ve read since The Hunger Games.
The book is very fast paced and action packed; in the very first page we see the Balsa pass through a village and jump into a freezing lake to rescue the drowning Prince. As a result, Balsa gets brought to the palace by the Second Empress and she soon finds out that there’s a deeper motive to their invitation, and learns that they boy has been possessed by an unknown water spirit, and that because of this there’s a conspiracy to try and kill him. Not only that, but the Second Empress wants Balsa to escape with the boy and to find out the nature.
The novel is split into two points of view: first, we have Balsa and her friends who have to evade capture and uncover the truth about the spirit that possesses Prince Chagum. Second, we have a point of view of Shuga, a Star Reader- a group of the country’s historians, philosophers and intelligentsia who run the country from the shadow of the Mikado (emporor).
Balsa is one of the best female leads I’ve ever come across. She’s absolutely the center and agent of her own story, and it isn’t eaten up by romance. She is brilliant not because she has super special powers or is the Chosen One, but because she’s very talented, disciplined, hard working and had excellent teaching. In a genre where protagonists end up being the lead because they have special powers and are able to master skills that take years to learn in about a month (something I like to call the Kung-Fu Panda effect), Balsa has studied martial art since she was a child and is not overpowered. ‘The Hunters’ (the Mikado’s elite fighters), are on a similar level and Balsa struggles to overcome them.
She’s very disciplined and excellent at survival. Uehashi is a master at describing place, and every survival decision Balsa makes in utterly convincing and brilliantly brought to life.She’s also got an interesting backstory, and a brilliant inner conflict about how survival and fighting for the sake of fighting became the center of her life somewhere down the line. The other characters serve their purpose;the Prince is sympathetic as we see him grow from pampered Prince into a more capable young man; Tanda being a nice gender reversal as he’s the calmer love interest whose a healer to Balsa’s fighter; Torogai is a very sharp tongued and powerful Magic Weaver who serves as the badass old mentor.These characters are likeable enough, and fulfill an important role in the plot, but none of them are any where as developed as Balsa.
Shuga is an excellent vantage point to explore the courtroom politics and mythology of New Yogo. He’s extremely talented and a skilled Star Reader, but is also very young and has only just begun to be trusted to learn the truth about the role of the Star Readers. Watching him uncover more of the truth about the nature of the water spirit and the legend was every bit as fascinating as Balsa’s adventures.
Although this novel may not be a deep, philosophical book about class and corruption (like Hunger Games), its exploration of myth and how it changes depending on viewpoint and the vested interests of the people telling the tale is well done and engaging. It also explores how fact mixes with fiction in legends, and how they change and are passed own after time.
The world of Yogo is deep and rich. Rather than focusing on building the world through politics, Moribito focuses on culture and geography. For example, we know Kanbal (Balsa’s homeland) is poor, very mountainous and its main crop is the potato due to its ability to be grown on the mountainside, while the people worship a God of Lightning. The world is very much like Japan in the Heian era, as the divine puppet emperor who’s viewed as divinity but ruled from the shadows by the Star Readers is reminiscent of how the emperor was controlled by the Fujiwara clan; Balsa’s weapon of choice (the spear) is similar in concept to the Naginata which was traditionally wielded by women because of its long reach; the ancient Japanese also paid their taxes in rice.
Verdict: Overall, Moribito: Guardian of The Spirit is a very good introduction to the Moribito series and an excellent stand alone novel. Things only get better in its sequel, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to read about a strong female lead, or wants to read a well developed fantasy world which is different from your usually medieval sword and sorcery fare.
BOOK VS ANIME SERIES: This is really down to personal taste, as both have their strengths and weaknesses. The book is very tightly plotted and quick paced, while the anime absolutely crawled towards the middle as Balsa’s. However, there’s a lot more character development in the television series. Balsa, Torogai, Tanda and Shuga remain mostly the same in both versions, but a lot of the support cast have a lot less development in the book; Sagum and the Mikado never actually appear in any scenes in the book and are only ever referred to, while the errand boy and his sister only appear briefly. Chagum is the biggest change, however, as he and his relationship with Balsa is very fleshed out in the television series, but he’s more bare bones in the book. His relationship with Balsa is also definitely strong in the book, but it doesn’t have anything that remotely compares to scenes like this.
So which one you like more depends on personal taste. Although I liked the anime’s ending and Chagum and Sagum’s characters more in the television series, the bulk of filler in the middle absolutely destroyed the series for me and I much prefer the book’s pacing.
RECOMMENDED FOR: fans of the anime, strong female lead book, quick paced adventure, book with a Heian feel.
RATING: 4 naginata wielding female badasses / 5