The problem is that when a water spirit has to be reborn every hundred years to avoid a major drought, and politics have reshaped the legend to make the water spirit out to be an enemy of the state, it’s awfully hard on the human carrier of the water spirit’s egg. Warrior Balsa is crossing over the Aoyumi River by way of the commoner’s bridge when she sees a carriage on the royal bridge. The carriage crashes, throwing the young Second Prince into the rushing water. Balsa acts swiftly and saves the boy. For her troubles, she is secretly appointed his bodyguard. It seems Chagum is possessed by a water spirit, and his own father is quietly trying to have him killed for the good of the kingdom.
The true hero of Nahoko Uehashi's Moribito is Balsa, a hardened thirty-something female warrior who will let nothing stop her from performing her duty. But as the secondary characters spring to life, we find that each of them is also compelling and dimensional. The emperor’s men aren’t faceless bad guys: for example, we meet the Star Readers, priests who read the night sky for their ruler. One young priest, Shuga, must begin to question the official version of the water spirit legend before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, Mon leads the Hunters, the emperor’s elite group of spies and assassins. An earnest sort, Mon is determined to fulfill his duty by killing the Second Prince. He's got a little Sam Spade thing going as he tries to track down the elusive Balsa, who turns out to be a better warrior than a mere woman should be.
Balsa’s own allies include a couple of beggar children, a healer named Tanda, and Torogai, a wily old woman who weaves magic. Each character, including Chagum, seems realistically conflicted without being scripted. Chagum is properly horrified by the magical egg he carries. He also begins to grow tougher under Balsa’s tutelage, even as he feels loved by the little band of travelers. Together they journey to find the fulfillment of the water spirit’s legend, along with escape from danger.
As if the death threats from Chagum’s own father aren’t enough, Balsa and the Second Prince are pursued by the Rarunga, a demon beast whose favorite food is water spirit’s egg (and who is one of the reasons the legend got mixed up in the first place). Ueshashi’s descriptions of the monster really pop—imagine giant claws emerging from beneath the ground to grab you, with the rest of the creature initially remaining unseen.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is the first of the author’s series of ten best-selling books in Japan, where it is also a TV series (that apparently shows on Adult Swim in the U.S.). This translation by Cathy Hirano just won the 2009 Batchelder Award, the American Library Association’s award for best translated children’s book originally from another country.
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. Pick it up for boys who like warriors and monsters or for girls who like kick-butt heroines. They'll join Balsa and Chagum on their quest to save the water spirit and will live in a new world for days.