070 – Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi

Moribito II cover 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.
Despite my enjoyment of Moribito, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Moribito II. Some of my affection for the first one was transferred from a love of the anime, but Moribito II takes things in a completely different direction, with an entirely new cast, setting, and storyline. It’s completely unrelated to Guardian of the Spirit; you could easily read this as a stand-alone book and not be lost. And, well, that might be why I liked it slightly more than Moribito. Whereas reading that one was a bit of a re-tread for me, Guardian of the Darkness is shiny and new, and ultimately more compelling for that.

Moribito II picks up just after Moribito ends, with Balsa returning to her home country of Kanbal to visit her Master and father-figure Jiguro’s relatives, and explain about the circumstances surrounding their departure twenty some-odd years ago. Balsa and Jiguro had originally fled Kanbal because of Balsa’s father’s involvement in a royal conspiracy, but the king who might have considered her a threat is dead now, making it safe for her return. Except it’s really not.

When she arrives, Balsa learns that Jiguro has been turned in to the nationally-despised villain of a tale that the former king had fabricated in order to explain Jiguro’s absence, and cover up a political power maneuver. Naturally, this makes Balsa a threat, and her presence has the potential to expose the truth behind this national fairy tale, and its hero, Jiguro’s brother. To cover his ass, Jiguro’s brother makes Balsa an outlaw, and sets his minions out to capture her.

At the same time, an ancient ceremony that for centuries has ensured the survival of Kanbal is drawing near, and the new king, without the guidance of anyone who had been present at the previous ceremony, is plotting a maneuver that could lead his entire country to ruin. Luckily, it’s all very cleverly tied together, and it’s up to Balsa and a young boy named Kassa to prevent this disaster.

Moribito II actually has a pretty awesome story. The first half or so, I’ll admit, is a little slow, but by the halfway mark, I couldn’t put the book down. The action escalates quickly, and the race against time to save the kingdom is a great way to build tension. The climax itself isn’t disappointing – it’s an action-packed flurry of martial arts and trippy magic, yet at the same time is deeply emotionally intense and satisfying. I wish every book could handle a boss fight that well.

The themes and conflicts tackled in Moribito II are very similar to those in the first book. Yet again, an entire country’s perception of history has been distorted thanks to a self-serving origin story. Like the tale of New Yogo’s first Emperor vanquishing the ~evil~ Moribito spirit in the previous book, Kanbal has a story in which its founder impressed the aptly-named Mountain King, and stuck a bargain to secure the hand of his daughter and the wealth of his land. Both stories are bullshit, of course, and the truth is potentially less flattering. Hence why the monarchies embellished the stories, changing them to better support their status and assertion of divine right to rule over the land.

I love the idea here, of personal and national narratives being altered to make men and countries the hero of their own stories, even when they aren’t. It’s a perpetually relevant, thought-provoking subject for Uehashi to bring up – an illustration of how subjective history can become, how easy it is to lose the truth, and how dangerous this can be. It’s some pretty heavy stuff in a children’s fantasy story. WHO KNEW, RIGHT?

Speaking of fantasy, I enjoyed the new fantastical elements Uehashi developed in this installment. Rather than copy-pasting the mythology and history from New Yogo, Uehashi created a new backstory and set of traditions for the people of Kanbal. It’s not a re-tread of what we saw in New Yogo, but still fits in the same world. It sounds like common sense, but mythological diversity isn’t really something I see a lot as a paranormal romance reader, and I liked it.

As one of the characters observes in the book, the people of Kanbal have an analog for the Yogese’s spiritual world of Nayug, but they don’t call it that, and it doesn’t work exactly the same. That’s the beauty of the world-building in a nut-shell: similar, but different. Kanbal has it’s own little details that differentiate it from New Yogo – foods, terms, people, architecture, social structure, etc. These kinds of little details allow you to more easily believe that these two cultures actually existed and developed, close enough for some things to cross over, but separate and under different enough circumstances for them to have a distinct culture and set of experiences. It all gives the story and world more credibility, for me.

I wasn’t as attached to the side characters this time around as I was in Moribito, but then, Moribito II doesn’t have a twenty-six episode television series to go along with it, and Balsa doesn’t really bond as much with the child hero of the story as she did with Chagum. I did like the child protagonist okay, though. Kassa was a good kid, and while he had a nice character arc, I kinda wish his sister had gotten a bigger/more important role.

What was nifty was seeing Balsa reunited and bonding with her aunt, her only remaining relative. They form a companionable relationship that extends beyond the time that they’re actually together, and I loved seeing Balsa’s aunt supporting and trying to help her niece, even after Balsa had gone. The whole thing was made doubly nifty by the fact that Balsa’s aunt was a strong-willed, smart, independently successful doctor. Fuck yeah, professional women flying solo in a feudal fantasy world.

Once again, though, the best part of the book was Balsa. On a character level, I loved what this story meant for her. There’s a great progression here, of Balsa moving forward and finally coming to terms with the events that drove and shaped her life. It’s a natural next step, on the heels of what Balsa learned with Chagum in Moribito, and the continuation of that emotional arc gives both books a great cohesion, in terms of character development.

It’s kind of funny, because both the plot in both books was driven by a male character – in Moribito, Chagum, and in this, Jiguro – but they ultimately end up being about Balsa. She’s the key, the chosen one, and the climax of Moribito II hinges on an instance of character development.

It’s a really great confrontation, heartbreaking and honest and, like Moribito, it doesn’t gloss over harsh, unpleasant realities. In fact, it might be straight up one of my favorite scenes, ever.

Suuuuper spoilery though.

As they danced, each thrust and jab of Jiguro’s spear seemed to transmit his emotions. One violent thrust grazed her side, and she felt his pent-up hatred burning in the open wound. He hated her! This realization shocked her, yet somehow deep inside, she had always known.

If only I hadn’t had to care for you…

How many times he must have suppressed that thought. If he had not sworn to care for her, he never would have had to kill his friends. If he had not been burdened with her life, he would never have had to flee Kanbal. Rogsam was not the only one who had derailed his life; Balsa had too. […]

A bone-gnawing pain sank into her chest, and as it did so, something stirred deep inside her – a fierce, aching rage. All the feelings she had locked deep in her heart, hidden even from herself, burst forth unchecked.

Tell me then, what could I have done? she lashed back, repelling Jiguro’s sphere. I was only six years old! Are you saying I should never have been born? Or that I should have killed myself? […]

I never asked you to save me! It was your choice, not mine!

Did you think I didn’t know? Did you think I didn’t feel how you resented me every time you had to kill a friend? I always knew!
Goosebumps. I love this scene. I love everything about it. I love the acknowledgement of Jiguro’s resentment of this child, who was like his daughter. I love the way Balsa doesn’t allow herself to shoulder the responsibility, not for Jiguro’s resentment or the deaths of his friends. I love how the novel doesn’t suggest that she should. And most of all, I love how she counters with such sad, fierce, angry honesty. I never asked you to save me! It was your choice, not mine!

I want to make this scene into a plushie and cuddle it forever.

Ahem. Anyway! It did occur to me, reading through the book, that there could be a fuckton of problematic things that I’m not seeing, that might be visible to people more familiar with Japanese culture/political history. Being a dumb American, I really wouldn’t know. A few things did make my “WUT”-o-meter twinge, like the hobbit-sized, dark-skinned “mountain people” that the Kanbalese ruling- and middle-class treated like this weird mix of slave/serf-labor race. They’re only allowed to tend goats, can’t marry up, basically exist to serve (and secretly watch) the Kanbalese people, and do so with a merry whistle and cheerful disregard for any ill treatment they receive, which is, well, WUT? I have no idea what to make of that. Is that an issue in Japan? IDEK. I had the same moment of pause for the native Yakoo people in the first book.

There’re also the same issues that Moribito had with the writing style. I didn’t notice quite as many anachronisms, but the prose still tended towards tell-y and simplistic.

That aside, I really enjoyed Moribito II. It’s bad-ass and entertaining and sad and wonderful and a great follow-up to Moribito, and it breaks my heart that Scholastic dropped the series. I want to keep reading this, I’d kick puppies to keep reading this, and yet low sales are, for the time being, ensuring that’s not going to happen.

Hence these reviews. Go out and buy these, you guys! Read them and fall in love with them, and then demand more from Scholastic! There are nine books in this series, and later installments follow up with Chagum, Balsa, and eventually reunite the two! T_T DO WANT NAO.

four stars


2 Responses

  1. dragonslayingprincess

    May 11, 2016 4:38 pm, Reply

    I love , love, love this book (and gave its prequel a glowing review as well- NEEDS MORE LOVE!!) And wish there was more of the series published. I also wish Balsa wasn’t such a rarity; a strong woman who’s sole protagonist with issues that have nothing to do with men- or solely revolve around her gender? Why is this so astonishing in a genre written by women?

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