~written by Nahoko Uehashi
~translated by Cathy Hirano
~illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
2009 Batchelder Award Winner
I first learned about Nahoko Uehashi's Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit while perusing a list of Batchelder Award winners and nominees looking for Japanese entrants. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit won the award in 2009 and in 2010 it's sequel Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness was listed as an honor book. Moribito is actually the first book of a ten volume Japanese fantasy series aimed towards younger readers; only the first two books have been translated into English so far. The first novel was made into both a manga series (not currently licensed in English) and an anime series, which I'll definitely be watching. There is also a radio drama adaptation. Originally published in Japan in 1996, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit was subsequently released by Arthur A. Levine books, an imprint of Scholastic, with an English translation by Cathy Hirano, who also translated the second book.
Despite being a woman and an outsider, Balsa has gained quite a reputation as an exceptional body guard and a master of the spear. When she saves the life of Prince Chagum, Balsa is brought to the palace by his mother, the Second Queen. She suspects that multiple attempts have been made on her son's life and have been made to look like accidents. The boy appears to be possessed by some sort of spirit and is seen as a threat to the country's stability. Balsa agrees to act as the prince's protector and flees the city with him. The two are not only pursued by elite human agents, but by supernatural beings as well. The only chance Balsa has to save Chagum is to understand what exactly it is that's inhabiting his body--knowledge that has been lost over time and forgotten as myth.
Balsa is so awesome. Next time someone tells you a woman nearing middle-age can't kick ass, just point to her. She has been training for most of her life to be a proficient fighter and while she has some raw, natural talent, her skills are mostly the result of hard work and practice. Uehashi has written some great action and fight sequences that are easy to follow but are still very exciting. Realistically, people get hurt and have to deal with the consequences of their injuries and healing, something that is often forgotten in other fantasy novels I've read, especially those written for younger readers. Another thing that Uehashi has done very well is that none of the characters are inherently good or bad--they're simply people. They've all made mistakes and done stupid things, but they also all have redeeming qualities. Thrown into a situation where their actions are dictated by what society requires as opposed to what they truly want or desires as individuals, they are dealing as best as they can.
I absolutely loved Moribito. Levine's production values and presentation of the novel is simply gorgeous and includes beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu (which I believe are unique to the English edition). Hirano's translation is also spot-on, using slightly formal and archaic sounding language that fits the story well. Although it is a contemporary novel, I felt as though I was being told a tale and legend much older. Moribito has a very definite ending so I have no idea where Uehashi plans to take things next. But I was so impressed by the first novel in the series that I immediately went out and bought the second volume. If any of the following books are even close to being as good as Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I truly hope that Levine will publish the rest of the series.