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Uehashi Nahoko. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.. Trans. Cathy Hirano. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2008.

I read this book because [personal profile] meganbmoore liked it. I liked it too.

But first let me indulge my inner literal bibliophile: OMG PRETTY BOOK IS PRETTY. The cover! The paper stock! The two-color printing! The interior illustrations and decorations! The slip jacket! Arthur A. Levine does books right.

Apparently this novel has already been turned into a manga and an anime--has anyone read or watched either? What did you think? Me, I liked the story, but I wasn't wild about the translation, though I've requested the next book in the series from my library despite its weaknesses.

I guess that means I liked the story! I did, really; wandering spearwoman Balsa is minding her own business crossing a bridge in not!Kyoto one day when she sees a kid fall off the bridge upstream reserved for royalty, dives in to save him, and realizes later that he is Chagum, the Second Prince. Later Chagum's mother the Second Queen reveals to Balsa that Chagum's father the Mikado is trying to kill his son because the water spirit of the country has laid its egg in Chagum, making him the Guardian of the Spirit, a Moribito. Balsa, who is a moribito specializing in people, agrees to take the prince away from the capital and out of the clutches of his father's Hunters, who are in fact at the will of the Star Readers, who more or less control the government of the country. For allies, Balsa has her old friends Torogai and Tanda, magic weavers of the country's indigenous Yakoo population. Can they keep Chagum safe from the Hunters and from Rarunga, the egg eater, and deliver the country from a hundred-year drought?

Anyway, Balsa is pretty awesome. It's made abundantly clear in the narrative that she is a wandering warrior because she made a vow to save eight lives (for a very thorough definition of "save"), which is the only reason she and Tanda don't get married, and everyone seems to accept that as that. So she wanders around being an absolutely amazing fighter and he stays home in the mountains studying magic. It works. (Also, Tanda's mentor Torogai is one badass old lady, I just want to note.)

And though the book only touches on these lightly, I did like the themes of politics, propaganda, history, deception and traditions preserved unknowingly (as well as the loss of culture Yakoo face as they gradually assimilate out of discrete existence). I also enjoyed the cod-northeast Asia setting (is it ever possible for the emperor to rule as well as to reign, incidentally?), though a lot of the names just seem weird, particularly when held up against unvarnished Japanese names such as Aoike Pond (which the translator in me screams is redundant).

Speaking of the translation, Cathy Hirano (who lives on Shikoku! which the jacket mentions for authenticity points!) is a prize-winning translator, and she does a pretty good job, but there's something about her phrasing that strips the prose of a lot of affect, and there's at least one place where her unimaginative translation of a standard Japanese construction ("thank God" for でよかった, for those of you playing along at home) imputes an extra layer of meaning to the narrative that is completely unsupported by the rest of the text. But given that it is essentially laziness that has me reading this book in English at all, I am satisfied despite these minor failings. And, you know, we need a) more fantasy in translation; b) more fantasy where women aren't punished for being badass warriors; c) more fantasy by chromatic authors; and d) more Asian fantasy, so on all these counts I have to recommend the book.
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