In this Japanese import, the first in a series, Balsa, a loner bodyguard on a mission to save eight lives, meets with a client with whom she becomes emotionally involved. Her charge is a twelve-year-old prince who is harboring an egg inside [End Page 499] him that, when hatched, will rehydrate and replenish the lands for 100 years. The prince is not only in danger from Rarunga, a demon that seeks to consume the egg before it hatches, but also from an earthly pursuer, his own father, who mistakenly believes that the egg Chagum harbors will, if hatched, bring misfortune and chaos to the kingdom. Balsa is less familiar with defenses against otherworldly creatures than human ones, but she is easily up to the challenge, defiant and unflappable in the face of grave dangers. Although the mysterious Balsa is the main focus of the novel, Uehashi imbues the side characters with enough personality to make them memorable as well: Chagum's transformation from spoiled prince to sturdy fighter is inspiring, Balsa's friends each offer distinct strengths that will aid and guide her, and the depth and complexity of the Hunters, sent by the king to kill the prince, keep them intriguing and sympathetic, even in their villainy. Tough women in fantasy are fairly common, but Balsa's particularly driven personality and standoffish approach to the world make her remarkable even among fierce female characters. The design is thoughtful and attractive, with each section opening with a finely detailed black-and-white spread. Readers seeking more background on the Japanese myths and details that shape the novel will find that the lists of characters, places, and terms hint at realistic Japanese elements even while they ultimately reference a fictional land. In Japan, these novels are sufficiently popular to have been adapted into a television show and a manga series; given the strong characterization, sweeping landscape, and compelling mix of realism and fantasy, American readers will also find the story appealing.
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Uehashi, Nahoko; Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit; tr. by Cathy Hirano; illus. by Yuko Shimizu. Levine/Scholastic, 2008; [256p] ISBN 978-0-545-00542-5 $17.99 Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 5-7
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