Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi – Review

Book Jacket:

Above all, before everything, Balsa is a fighter.

She protects children and adults, the rich and the poor, in a quest to redeem eight lives lost for her sake. She is a master of the short spear and expert in the martial arts, dazzling even her opponents with her fearlessness in combat.

And she will need every one of her skills in her latest job: guarding the Second Prince, Chagum. For the prince is the Moribito — the Guardian of the Spirit — chosen to deliver the egg of the Water Spirit to its home in the distant sea. If he fails, a drought will devastate the land of the New Yogo. But as Balsa and Chagum travel across the country, learning more about the spirit and the secret history of the empire, they find themselves hunted by two deadly enemies: the egg-eating monster, Rarunga . . . and the prince’s own father.

Translated into multiple languages and adapted for a major television series, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit introduces readers to a fantasy world like no other — and a fighter they will never forget.

Review:

This book hit me square on my epic fantasy fan, martial arts movie loving, Avatar: The Last Airbender fangirl heart. This is a story about honor and duty, fate and sacrifice, with spirit shenanigans and deathly fights galore - and it’s just so marvelously, refreshingly, authentically Japanese. I loved it.

In terms of style, Moribito has a very old school way about it – it almost reminds me a bit of Homer. This does not read like a modern YA fantasy – it is so rich and yet also, in some ways, a spare and simple narrative – and it most definitely has a strong non-western cultural stamp. I absolutely loved this story for it, but I can see how it might be be off-putting for some, particularly in terms of the narrative construction. Backstory comes into play fairly often, and it is always told, not shown – it’s a very old world, fireside method of storytelling, and it results in some heavy exposition. Honestly, I didn’t even notice it until someone mentioned it to me, well after I had finished the book – it just fit so seamlessly with the style of this story, and the story that was being told was so utterly fascinating, I didn’t even register it. It’s just a different style – either you’ll like it or you won’t. I think the cover is a good litmus test: if you look at the above cover and think, cool, you’re probably going to like this book.

As for the world building, this book is downright phenomenal – this is the kind of story that puts the epic back in epic fantasy. Uehashi, another anthropologist turned author, bases her fantasy world loosely on medevil Japan, but Yogo is still very much a world of her own making. Not content to simply create a landscape of geography and mythology, Uehashi also layers in class systems and the push and pull between politics and the spiritual and moral, wonderfully brought to life via the Emperor’s spiritual advisers. The realizations they come to, as they discover the difference between the legends they have been taught and the truth of their history, are wonderful to see. Uehashi also layers in the ramifications of a world where a new population has displaced a native one, and how with that annexation and interbreeding the customs and traditions of the native people are slowly becoming lost and forgotten – with disastrous results. There is such breadth to this beautifully realized world, and that’s not even taking into account the spirit world that co-exists within it! The earthly realm and the spirit realm need and rely on each other in interesting ways, and it is fascinating to see all the terrifying and amazing vistas and creatures the spirit realm holds – not to mention how the two different earthly cultures view the spiritual in different ways. This story deftly dances between the ordinary and the fantastical, and it makes for one deliciously epic fantasy story.

In terms of the character work, I thought it was brilliantly understated. I loved the cast across the board, but I particularly loved Balsa. She is complicated, utterly believable, and a little enigmatic – I was hanging on every word that revealed more about her. The reasons for why she learned to fight and why she chose to become a bodyguard are wonderfully compelling, and I loved how they tangled with Balsa’s ability to form relationships. As for those relationships: from the new, the almost mother/son bond that grows between Balsa and Chagum, to the old, the feelings that could be more between Balsa and Tanda, they were wonderful. In a world of YA were we so often get hit over the head with ridiculously overwrought romance, it was beautiful to see love shown in quieter ways, and for romance not to be the be all, end all of a female character. I also downright loved how Balsa and Chagum struggled with anger and helplessness in the face of their fates, both separately and together. Balsa’s relationship with Chagum helps her come to an understanding about her own life, and it is just beautiful to see. Oh, I loved this book.

For this western reader, Moribito was a lovely surprise – epic fantasy told through a different cultural lens, with fascinating texture. From Gail Carriger to Nahoko Uehashi, I think I’m developing quite a soft spot for anthropologists who write fantasy – trained researches just bring such a level of detail and complexity to their writing that it makes for delicious reading. Really my only complaint about this book came after I finished reading – and that was when I discovered that while the Moribito series spans eleven volumes, only TWO of them have been translated into English! That’s just mean…

Action, adventure, honor, fate, and facing death – this story is leagues above your average YA fare. The style of this book won’t be for everyone, but the storytelling is superb. And I for one can’t wait to read the next book!

Byrt Grade: A

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Kirkus Reviews says:

This newly translated 1996 Japanese fantasy has spawned nine sequels, a radio drama, a manga comic book and an anime television series in Japan…Jam-packed with monstrous combat, ethnic conflicts and complex mythologies, Balsa and Chagum’s story will win many new fans for this series.

Dear Author says:

I couldn’t help but notice how dependent on exposition this book’s narrative is. I usually dislike that in my books, but I have a feeling this is a cultural difference…Even though this book works well as a standalone, I have to be honest. I sincerely hope the rest of the series gets translated so I can find out what happens to Balsa, who continues her semi-justified wandering, and Tanda, who despite everything he says, still chooses to wait for her.

Book Aunt says:

Moribito will obviously appeal to the anime crowd, but we should really get this book into the hands of any fantasy or adventure fan. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is one of the best fantasy adventures I’ve read in the past few years.

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