“Your Highness,” she said. “I’ve already explained that no matter how much you might give me, it’s no good to me if I’m dead. Forgive my rudeness, but I must speak plainly. You have dealt me an unfair and cowardly blow.”
The queen went pale and began to tremble violently. “What do you mean?”
“I saved the prince’s life, yet you reward me by taking my life. What would you call that but unfair and cowardly?”
On the prosperous, island kingdom of Yogo, the divine king Mikado rules absolute, his veins carrying the precious blood of the god Ten no kami. When the Mikado’s son, the Second Prince Chagnum, is thrown from his carriage in a freak accident, he’s nearly killed; luckily for Chagnum, a traveling warrior named Balsa is in the right place at the right time and saves him from certain death.
A bodyguard-for-hire renowned for her fierceness with a spear, Balsa is rewarded for her good deed by being invited by the Second Queen to the palace—where she is promptly ambushed and implored by the desperate queen to protect her son. The carriage incident was no accident, and the Second Queen is convinced that the Mikado and his Star Reader priests are trying to kill her son for the good of the kingdom, as they believe Chagnum is possessed by a water demon that will cause a catastrophic drought. As fierce as Balsa may be, she cannot leave the innocent Chagnum to such a horrible fate, and accepts the role as his bodyguard. Little does Balsa know that Chagnum’s survival will determine the destiny of the kingdom, and the secret of the young prince’s “possession” will unlock the forgotten truth behind Yogo’s layered and rewritten past.
This review can be summed up in a single word: wow.
After reading and striking out with so many new superhero books (not to mention culturally appropriative “Japanese-inspired” fantasy novels), it was with a wary eye that I picked this book as the subject for my Kirkus contribution this week. Thankfully, Guardian of the Spirit was a soothing balm for my frayed patience. A beloved best-seller in its native country of publication, Japan, the Moribito books have since been adapted into a manga series, an anime series and a radio drama, and finally made their way to the United States in 2008. It’s easy to see why Balsa and her cohorts have found such a strong following across languages and formats—suffice it to say, dear readers, this book completely rocks.
You may be wondering where superheroes fit in, as by all counts Guardian of the Spirit appears to be a feudal Japanese-type fantasy novel (right?). In my opinion, Balsa is—without a doubt—a superhero and on a hero’s journey. Though she has no superpowers per se, Balsa is an incredibly skilled warrior (though not infallible and clearly mortal) and, most importantly, she fights to protect those who have no protectors. She’s female, she’s 30 years old (another point in the awesome column), and she’s a bonafide badass with a chip on her shoulder.
What’s so intriguing about Balsa as a character, however, is her surprising empathy; she’s not just a badass killing machine with no heart, nor is she reduced to a matronly figure (as, unfortunately, older female superheroes often seem to be labeled). No, Balsa is strong without being abrasive, and she’s emotionally genuine without being pigeonholed as a motherly role model. Nor is Balsa objectified or sexualized—she’s underestimated by other warriors (who see her as an easy target, alone on the road as she is), but I love that she’s appreciated and valued for her bravery, her heart and her skill.
The same appraising awesomeness can be said for the other main female character in the text (a surprise assumption that I don’t want to ruin). Furthermore, author Nahoko Uehashi (a professor of ethnology at the Kawamura Gakuen Women’s University in Japan) pays careful attention to Balsa’s Japanese-inspired world and the different ethnicities and beliefs of the people in that world. Religious tolerance, displaced indigenous people, traditions and histories rewritten by the victors are all major themes in Guardian of the Spirit, and each executed to perfection.
This all sounds rather introspective and clinical, doesn’t it? Allow me to fix that, because really, Guardian of the Spirit is an action book. Uehashi has an unparalleled talent for explosive action sequences (it’s easy to see how this book lends itself to an anime series!) to compliment her fast-moving, high-stakes plot, and paints vivid images of Balsa throwing her shuriken and whipping her spear around in a brilliant flash of silver and blood as she battles iron-clad men and tentacled monsters alike.
And the best part? The best part is that there is a second book, a translated manga series, and a dubbed and subtitled anime series waiting for any new fans just discovering the magic of Moribito. I, for one, cannot wait for more of Balsa and her friends.
In Book Smugglerish, 9 flashing spears out of 10.
 Though you may be thinking Wonder Woman, Balsa is actually more akin to Batman: same traumatic backstory, same very human/non-superpowered background, same sharp edges and violence.