I will defend you/from all the darkness/this is the truth of my heart…
Truly strong female protagonists can be hard to come by. Too often, when an author is trying to write a strong woman, they end up writing a male character and giving her a female name. No matter what feminists and political correctness would have you believe, women do tend to think and act differently then men in the same situation. Now, whether it’s genetic, or cultural, or whatever the reason behind it, it has to be figured in when writing the character. This is done with amazing clarity and accuracy in Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi.
Balsa is a woman who has had a hard life. Just around 30 years old, she’s the daughter of the personal physician of a king. When the king was assassinated, both of their lives became in serious jeopardy. He sent his only daughter, Balsa, away in the care of his best friend and former bodyguard to the emperor, Jiguro. Balsa was acutely aware of the sacrifices that were made to keep her alive, and watched as her protector had to kill the 8 soldiers and former friends that were sent after them.
Years later, after her 7th assignment as a bodyguard, she crosses a bridge, going the opposite way as a royal procession. Something spooks the horses, and she watches as a carriage falls into the fast-moving water below. Without thinking, she jumps in, and pulls out the young Prince Chagum. She’s then “invited” back to the palace, where the real story begins.
During the night, Chagum’s mother explains that what occurred on the brigde was no accident. Price Chagum has a water spirit within him, and it is for this reason that people believe he must be killed. Chagum’s mother beseeches Balsa to take him away. Balsa reluctantly accepts, since there really isn’t much option to do otherwise, and a fire is set to fake the death of Chagum and give them enough time to get out of the area.
What comes next is a mystical adventure story learning what exactly is within Chagum, and how to keep it from killing him, while also letting it complete its reason for existing. Along the way, we get to experience several fascinating points of view and intertwining stories. We meet Tanda, the healer and childhood friend of Balsa, to whom she always returns to get patched up, and who may wish Balsa would come back for good and start a home. We meet Toya and Saya, two street urchins who Balsa saved once, and will do anything for her. We also meet Torogai, a shaman who knows quite a lot about the spirit world, and perhaps a bit about what’s going on with Chagum as well.
We also get to know Chagum. Through the story, he goes from an extremely sheltered boy who can’t walk for more than a few hours without Balsa needing to carry him, to becoming a fairly normal, working class boy who chops wood, learns to fight from Balsa, and can take basic care of himself. Besides the fact that he has a mystical ‘egg’ inside him that wants to hatch into a water spirit, and most of the kingdom is looking to kill him.
The story has enough action, along with a touch of the mystical, to keep even the most reluctant reader’s attention. What sets this book apart, and raises Nahoko Uehasi to a top tier author, though, is how well she understands her characters. Whether she’s writing the thoughts of a young boy taken completely out of his element, a young woman trying to make right the hardships undertaken in her name, or the man left behind over and over by the strong women he loves, she transitions from voice to voice beautifully and weaves a story that resonates as true to the reader.
Moribito is really a special story. No matter the medium, it shows how real people think, and how they make decisions. Even when there is no easy path, or no real right path at all.
Highs: Pacing; motivation and inner dialog of characters
Lows: In the middle, all the different stories could be hard to keep straight before they meet up again in the end
Verdict: Absolutely worthwhile for readers of any age
Further Reading: Moribitio II: Guardian of the Darkness, Ender’s Game