Author: Nahoko Uehashi, Translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano

Arthur A. Levine, 2008.

Best ebook deal: Currently Unavailable (disagree?)

Moribito has been a popular and award-winning series of children’s adventure novels in Japan since 1997. The books follow Balsa, a rare woman warrior who lives her life as a spear-for-hire, on adventures around the island nation Yogo, based on feudal Japan. She strives to atone for her past by saving the lives of eight people. As Balsa soon learns, saving a life is far more difficult than taking one, and takes much longer–a lifetime versus a second. It soon becomes clear to the reader however, that despite motivations, heroes are sometimes heroes just because that is who they were born to be.

This book is a quick read. It only takes a couple hours to get through the 200 odd pages. Those pages contain a very sound adventure story and Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit is a great choice for a light read on a Saturday afternoon.

The plotting and characterization are as adept and as gripping as you’d expect from a quality young adult novel. Despite its brevity, the politics explored in the plot are fairly deep, and the tangling motivations behind the different murder plots are satisfying and fuel the pacing nicely. The characterization is strong and it’s easy to see how these characters could remain sustainable for a further nine books. Hopefully Cathy Hirano keeps producing the translations (the second book in the series is due for an English publication in early May). Her writing paces well and from what little I know of Japanese and the practice of coining compound words for names, she seems to do a sound job of retaining the meanings of proper nouns when introducing characters and places.

The greatest strength of this novel is the world it presents. The land is a fictional one based on a fantastical feudal Japan. There are magical elements at work in this story, but not so much to push the novel fully into the realm of fantasy. The magic is muted and controlled, and built upon plausibility and legend put forth by the book, more akin to the Aeneid than The Hobbit.

Finally, the visual presentation is nothing short of beautiful. The book is colorful, with borders printed on the pages and an attractive typeset. There are a few nice illustrations separating the separate segments of the book that look like a cross between Amano paintings and Hokusai woodcuts. The presentation adds a welcome storybook feel to the book that I hope is carried over to the paperback version as well as the ebook if and when it becomes available.

Other books you might like: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling), The King in the Tree (Millhauser), The Princess Bride (Goldman).