Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mini Book Reviews: Moribito 1 and 2 by Nahoko Uehashi

I have never seen the anime Seirei no Moribito (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit), but I randomly picked up the first novel several years ago. I loved how unique it was, but I only got around to the second one this week. I actually liked the second one, Guardian of the Darkness, even better. If you are interested in Japanese folklore, manga and/or anime, or strong heroines, then read on.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Moribito #1) by Nahoko Uehashi

Spectacular, isn't it? 
Covers and blurbs are from

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. 

I don't remember when my love of Japanese culture and history developed (I just know I was really little, and that it was probably brought on by a book of Japanese folktales). I read every book on samurai and ninja that my childhood librarians could find, and then I went on to books about Japan itself and its fascinating history. Next came the (inevitable) calligraphy, kanji, and manga.

So with all that as a preface, I was poised to love Moribito. But there's a lot more to like about this novel than the setting.

Let's start with Balsa. She's thirty years old, a wandering warrior and spear-for-hire. Not only is she a (believably) proficient fighter, she's also a humble, kind woman with a lot of heart. Her backstory may be tragic, but she hasn't let it hold her down. Just read this description:
“Balsa seemed invincible, endowed with powers no other warrior could match, but in her profile he could glimpse the shadow of a young girl, hurt and buffeted by a cruel and hopeless fate. If he had never experienced what it was like to be at the mercy of fate himself, he would not have noticed, but now he could see it with unbearable, heartrending clarity.” 
― Nahoko UehashiMoribito: Guardian of the Spirit
In Guardian of the Spirit, Balsa's travels find her in the island kingdom of Yogo. She saves the crown prince from a "freak"accident, which gets Balsa involved in something much bigger than she realized. Prince Chagum has a secret: he carries the great egg of the Water Spirit, which he must deliver to the northern sea. This has made him the target of an egg-eating monster and his own father. Chagum's mother rightly suspects the king, and she hires Balsa to protect the young prince. On the way, Balsa and Chagum develop a delightful relationship, a cross between mentor-student and siblings. Naturally, there is a lot of action, as a lone warrior woman attracts both interest and suspicion, and Balsa truly enjoys a fight.

The writing is lovely, but narrative heavy. The pacing and storytelling also differ from a typical Western novel. Its not a challenging read, but there are thought-provoking explorations of everything from gender roles to philosophical and religious differences in cultures. Also, this is one of the better translated novels I've read (applause for translator Cathy Hirano), and there are superb illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars. In short, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre, with a unique heroine and an action-packed story that will appeal to guys, girls, teens, and adults.

Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness (Moribito #2) by Nahoko Uehashi

"Conflict seems to follow those who learn to fight. If I could, I would spare you a life of bloodshed. But I have no choice."
― Nahoko UehashiMoribito: Guardian of the Darkness

Blurb and cover from
Balsa returns to her native Kanbal to clear the name of Jiguro, her dear mentor, who saved her life when she was six years old. But what should be a visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that Jiguro had been a member of King Rogsam's personal bodyguard. After Jiguro fled Kanbal with her, Rogsam sent the other bodyguards after them one by one--Jiguro's best friends, whom he had to kill to protect Balsa. Now, with the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Dark. 
If anything, Uehashi's strengths as a worldbuilder are even stronger with the second Moribito installment. The layers to her fantasy landscape keep peeling back for even more fascinating elements to be revealed. Oh, and there is a lot more food description in this one. It made me hungry.
Guardian of the Darkness takes up where Guardian of the Spirit left off, as Balsa
heads home to clear her beloved mentor's name. On the way, she saves another child (a pair of children, actually) from a fearsome cave spirit. This good deed ends up causing Balsa heaps of trouble, as she realizes that the events of her childhood were farm more nuanced and sinister that she imagined. Despite her best efforts, Balsa finds herself dragged into plots and intrigue, and a fight for her life and that of her nation.

Again, there is a lot of narrative, and the story has a rapid clip. However, the real reason to read this is Balsa herself. Her history is explored a little more, as well as her feelings and motivations. She is an incredible heroine that you can both empathize with and root for. And she is so very cool.

As a side note, the treatment of Jiguro (Balsa's mentor), his family, and the collateral damage his leaving caused, were all very well done.

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars. Another strong entry with great action, an awesome lead, and an exciting fantasy landscape.

And here's my biggest complaint:  the eight other books in the series have never been translated into English! Just another reason I should learn Japanese, I guess . . .*
But don't let that disappointing fact stop you from reading these two novels! They work just find as stand alone works.

Here's a challenge for you: off the top of your head, can you name any Japanese MG or YA novel that has been translated for English speakers? If you can, tell me in the comments so I can go find it. Have you read Moribito, or seen the anime?

*I wish I was one of those people that languages clicked with. Alas, that is not the case. My language abilities are embarrassing at best . . . really bad for a writer, you know?

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