Published: Sunday August 16, 2009 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday July 31, 2013 MYT 8:55:47 PM

Enter a mystical land

I’VE just read a fabulous adventure fantasy called Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano (Publisher: Arthur A. Levine, ISBN: 978-0545005425). It’s the first book, in a series of 10, about Balsa, professional bodyguard who was trained in combat from childhood.

Balsa was compelled to leave her home in the land of Kanbal at the age of six. Her father, Karuna Ronsa, was the king’s personal physician and the king’s brother, Rogsam, threatened to kill Balsa unless Karuna agreed to poison the king. Knowing that he and his daughter would be put to death anyway, Karuna begged his friend, martial arts master Jirguro, to take Balsa far away and out of danger. Jiguro eventually trained Balsa to fight so that she would be able to defend herself if anything happened to him.

When we first meet Balsa at the beginning of Guardian, she is described as having “long, weather-beaten hair” and a tanned face that is “beginning to show fine wrinkles”.

The bit about her wrinkles is misleading. I pictured a woman pushing 50, but of course, Balsa is a warrior, a bodyguard for hire, not a fine lady. And the world and the period that the story is set in is based on ancient Japan (round about the third to fourth century) and a woman in her 30s would probably be considered way past her prime back then.

In the world of Sayu, the indigenous Yakoo and the immigrant Yogoese live in harmony. The rulers of this land are the Yogoese and legend has it that the first Yogoese emperor (or Mikado) was a warrior who killed a water demon that threatened to bring a devastating draught to Sayu.

A hundred years have passed since the first Mikado ascended the throne, and the present ruler’s second-born son seems to be possessed by a demon similar to the one his ancestor was supposed to have vanquished for good. Thus, for the sake of internal security and public relations, the Mikado decides that the prince, Chagum, must be put to death.

Balsa, hired by the Second Empress to protect the boy, flees with Chagum and is pursued by Hunters, the Mikado’s band of professional assassins.

With the help of her childhood friend, the healer Tanda, and his teacher, the famous magic weaver, Torogai, Balsa learns more about the water demon, and how to best keep Chagum safe.

The cover blurb describes Guardian as a story “chock full of swords, shuriken, and masterful moves”, but this novel isn’t just a string of fancy combat scenes. Sayu is a land steeped in myth, magic, superstition, and ritual, and the plot strongly reflects this. Furthermore, Balsa is probably more introspective than the average young warrior and does quite a bit of soul-searching as she considers her life and future.

This combination of action and contemplation, an admirable hero who is physically brave and strong yet emotionally vulnerable, and Uehashi’s evocative description of Sayu’s peoples, places, and practises make for a rich and compelling tale that readers can fully enter and realise.

Moribito also makes a welcome change from the usual fantasy fiction that is based on Celtic or Norse mythology. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, and The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst also reference Japanese history and culture. Fans of those two series are likely to enjoy Moribito as well.

The English translation of the second book in the series, Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness, is now also available.

Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle


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