Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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Today, Thea finally reviews the second book in the Moribito series, Guardian of Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi.
Written by Nahoko Uehashi / Translated by Cathy Hirano / Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: This edition 2009 / First published in 1999
Hardcover: 245 pages
In the marvelous sequel to the novel (and Cartoon Network series) MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT, Balsa returns to her native land to fight a corrupt ruler and face her own demons.
Balsa returns to her native Kanbal to clear the name of Jiguro, her dear mentor, who saved her life when she was six years old. But what should be a visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that Jiguro had been a member of King Rogsam’s personal bodyguard. After Jiguro fled Kanbal with her, Rogsam sent the other bodyguards after them one by one–Jiguro’s best friends, whom he had to kill to protect Balsa. Now, with the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Dark.
Standalone or series: Book 2 in the Moribito Series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print Book
Why did I read this book: I stumbled across book 1, Guardian of the Spirit in my local indie bookstore a while back and absolutely loved it (in fact it is one of my favorite books read in 2013). Naturally, I was eager to get my hands on book 2, and finally was able to track one down on Amazon!
Balsa has saved the kingdom of New Yogo from a century of drought, protected the life of young Prince Chagum against all odds, and has completed her vow to rescue eight people from death. Still, the darkness of Balsa’s past weighs heavily on her heart – she feels that her foster father and guardian Jiguro’s spirit is not at rest. Twenty-five years earlier, when Balsa was just a young girl, Prince Rogsam ordered her father, royal physician Karuna, to poison the king. After assuming the throne, Rogsam quickly moved to dispose of anyone that knew of his treachery, including Karuna and his young daughter. While Karuna could not escape Rogsam’s cruel efficiency, he was able to save Balsa from death by entrusting her to best friend and unparalleled warrior, Jiguro. Under Jiguro’s protection and tutelage, Balsa grew from a hapless orphan to a spear-wielding warrior every bit as skilled as her mentor. But Balsa’s survival came at a heartbreaking cost, as Jiguro was forced to kill eight of his former friends and fellow warriors sent by King Rogsam to track down and kill the “traitors.”
Two decades and many adventures later, Balsa is determined to clear Jiguro’s name from the slanderous, poisonous lies spread by the late King Rogsam. Balsa returns to her childhood home only to discover that the nightmare of corruption and lies did not die with Rogsam. It is up to Balsa to unravel Rogsam’s legacy of lies and the mystery of the Guardians of the Darkness – with the fate of all of Kanbal at stake.
The second book in Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito series, Guardian of the Darkness is every bit as wonderful as – even moreso than – its predecessor. Guardian of the Spirit was a much grander, epic book in terms of scope, what with the many battle scenes, parallel spirit world traveling, magic weaving, and spidery egg-eating monsters. But Guardian of the Darkness is…well…darker. From a pure writing and plotting perspective, Guardian of the Darkness at first glance seems a familiar story of atonement and release as Balsa returns to Kanbal. This is true; Guardian of the Darkness is a familiar tale and relatively straightforward, especially when contrasted with the flash and grandeur of the first novel. But… Guardian of the Darkness possesses a deceptive simplicity. This is a powerful book of reckoning, in which our flawed, rage-filled heroine confronts the pain of her past in order to lay the spirit of her mentor at rest – to put her own tortured spirit to rest, too.
I love the lack of sentimentality in this book, especially as it pertains to Balsa’s character. I’m not sure if this is an effect of the translation or if it is simply the way the book and Balsa’s character are written (my guess is the latter) – regardless, I love the harder edge to this book and to our spear-wielding heroine’s character. Balsa is still a relatable character, she still protects the innocent against impossible odds, but she’s also a warrior who has nothing but bitter memories of Kanbal. She feels no loyalty to her former home country, and who can blame her? After being hunted down for years, living on the road, ostracized for her lineage, her Kanbal heritage, and for being a woman in a man’s profession, Balsa is very much an outsider. And she is angry. Not just with the late King Rogsam, or the conniving Yuguro; Balsa is angry with the people that listened to Rogsam’s lies and, most of all, her anger is with Jiguro himself. Even though she was only six years old when they fled Kanbal, Balsa felt the weight of Jiguro’s sadness and futile resentment every time he was forced to kill one of his childhood friends – every life he took, to protect Balsa and keep a promise to his dead best friend.
Your deaths hurt me. They cut me to the core. And the pain they caused could never be relieved because I could never hope to atone for them… Even after you died, even to this day, I still carry that burden.
It is this internal rage and darkness that drives her actions in this book. It is this tortured relationship between Balsa and Jiguro’s memory, his ghost, that makes the catharsis so very powerful.
I haven’t even mentioned the additional worldbuilding and backstory Uehashi manages to imbue in this second novel – both are fantastic and varied, building off the world established in book one. I love the contrast of Kanbal and the Kanbalese culture compared to the excesses and richness of New Yogo, as well as the indigenous Yaku people. Suffice it to say that each of these different people, cultures, and kingdoms are beautifully, expertly rendered. Similarly, I haven’t said anything of Cathy Hirano’s flawless translation from the original Japanese (truly amazing, as was her translation of the first book), nor have I extolled the gorgeousness of Yuko Shimizu’s illustrations. (On the whole, both hardcover books are stunningly beautiful packages, with their heavy paper stock jackets and thick pages, and I love the green colored illustrations and tones throughout this second novel.)
Seriously, do yourself a favor and check out Yuko Shimizu’s art
For those reasons, even though Guardian of the Spirit had more action and nominally higher stakes, Guardian of the Darkness was a more exciting book and, in my opinion, a more rewarding book. I loved every single moment of it, and highly recommend it to readers of all ages and of all genres. If you haven’t read this series yet, I urge you to do so immediately.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
Balsa stood on a rocky ledge beside a cave, the overlapping ridges of the Misty Blue Mountains dropping away beneath her. A stream rushed from the cave mouth and thundered into a basin far below, wrapping her in the tingling scent of fresh water. The hot, dry summer had passed, and the green foliage was beginning to fade. Within a month, the mountain slopes would be covered in a blaze of autumn leaves.
Balsa closed her eyes. The setting sun burned a red circle against her eyelids. She had stood on this shelf once before, after her foster father, Jiguro, had led her weeping through the caves. Just six years old, she had trembled to see the foreign land spread out below her; she could not begin to imagine the life that awaited her there. Years later, she was a bodyguard by trade, her black weathered hair bound carelessly into a ponytail and her belongings slung over the end of her well-used spear. Those mountains to the south now separated her from everyone she loved in New Yogo, while to the north, through the cave, lay her native Kanbal, whose very name stirred bitter memories within her.
And yet now that was where she must go.
Additional Thoughts: After finishing Guardian of the Spirit, I learned that the anime series not only had been dubbed in english and released on Cartoon Network, but that it was also immediately available on Hulu. (Note that this scene isn’t dubbed in English, but the series on Hulu is.)
So, if you’re interested in the Moribito series, have read the books, or just want to check out the anime, go forth to Hulu!!! While the anime version is actually much longer and includes a lot of tangential material not in the book, it’s still very good.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
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