Hello…. Its me… back again with another review. Today, I’m reviewing the first book in the Moribito series, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi.
The Moribito books take place in a fictional country that has many similarities to Ancient and Medieval Japan, which the author was influenced by when she wrote the books. There are three main groups of people in the stories: the Yogo, the Yakoo and the Kanbal.
The Yogo came to the land long ago and their coming made the indigenous Yakoo leave many of the fertile lands. The Yogo are lead by a leader know as the Mikado. He is advised by a group of spiritualists known as Star Readers, and the Master Star Reader serves as chief adviser to the Mikado in almost everything, from civil policy to succession. Originally, the Star Readers were group of spiritualists who practiced a ritual of sky-watching and prayer in order to divine some form of higher truth, an idea they refer to as Tendo. Over time however, the Star Readers have become more and more entrenched in their political role, to the point where much of the knowledge that was meant to be passed down through the generations has been lost in the sands of time.
The Yakoo are the darker skinned natives who once populated the lands of the Yogo. They also prescribe to a form of spiritualism, but their practices and philosophy differ from the Star Readers. They believe that there are two worlds: the physical world that man lives in, known as Sagu, and the world of the spirits, known as Nayugu. They believe that these two worlds co-exist, and are in fact superimposed upon one another. Through “magic-weaving”, they are able to catch glimpses of this other world and can even make contact and communicate with beings which exist in Nayugu. However, just as the Star Readers have lost their knowledge, so too have many of the deeper secrets of Nayugu been lost.
Kanbal is a country in the high mountains, populated by a rugged warrior bandit class. Imagine if the Huns practiced Chinese Gong-fu and lived in the Himalayas. These guys are tough, and one of the main characters comes from Kanbal, Balsa the Spear-wielder. There is not much more I can say about Kanbal, as it does play a significant role in the events of the first Moribito book.
As I just mentioned, the lead of the first novel is Balsa the Spear-wielder. Balsa is a woman of about 30 who comes from Balsa. She works as a bodyguard throughout the country, living a frugal life, but not wanting for much. We begin our story with Balsa walking through the kingdom of Yogo. During her walk, she sees a palanquin topple over and the occupant, the Second Prince of Yogo, fall into the river. Balsa then proceeds to the rescue the boy and is invited to the palace.
The Second Queen, mother to the Second Prince, a boy named Chagum, confides in Balsa that she believes Chagum was not thrown into the river by accident. Her theory is that the Mikado, Chagum’s father, plans to assassinate him. Recently, Chagum has been exhibiting strange behavior, which the Star Readers have deemed to be some sort of demonic spirit possession. To prevent this knowledge from becoming public, the Mikado resolved to have the boy killed in a way which seemed accidental. The Queen, fearing for her son’s life, hires Balsa to protect Chagum at all costs. Knowing that it was impossible to say know to such an offer, she escapes the palace with Chagum.
And so the story goes. Balsa and Chagum escape, and in time they learn the truth behind Chagum’s curse, while avoiding the deadly assassins that the Mikado sends after them.
I would say that I did enjoy this book. I love Japanese history, and while this does not take place in a real setting, the similarities to Ancient Japan are uncanny. The Yogo encroachment onto the territory native to the Yakoo is similar to the first feudal kings of Japan who originated from the people who came across the land bridge that once connected what is now mainland East Asia (Korea or China, I can’t remember) and what is now Japan (Kyushu or Honshu, I can’t remember). The power breakdown within Yogo is also similar to… well, pretty much every monarch everywhere, not just Japan. The Mikado is the head of state, but in practice his advisers, the Star Readers, control how things turn out for the people. In the same way, advisers have been the decision makers behind Emperors and Shoguns for long periods of time in Japanese history. And of course, there is the premise of the King killing his son to prevent his rule from being tarnished. Often times, rulers will ascribe their power to some divine authority. “Why am I ruler? Well, God made it so.” People didn’t really argue that. However, if the son of the man chosen by god is found to be cursed, that could spell disaster. In the case of the Mikado, it comes down to the story that was told about the first Mikado. It was believed that the first Mikado killed the water demon that the Star Readers believe is now possessing Chagum. If it is revealed that Chagum is possessed by that water demon, it would mean that the country has been lied to for generations. The position of Mikado would lose all respect, and there for all authority, to rule.
I am more happy with the story because it is not just the above geopolitical and socio political intrigue. If it was, it would be a bit too dry. However, we are also given great battle scenes. Balsa is an accomplished warrior and her skill is found to be unparalleled in this first book. The descriptions of her fighting and the fighting of the assassins who target her is really nice and I found it was a good addition which helped make the story more well rounded.
I think that is it honestly. This was a surprisingly short book, but a good, quick read. I am unhappy about one thing though. Only the first two books have been translated. There are MANY more that Scholastic left untranslated due to poor sales. I am looking into a way to fix that, but in the meantime, I will leave it at that. As usual, thanks for reading and have a great day.