Balsa, a woman warrior and bodyguard, is no shrinking violet, and she’s no spring chicken either. I knew I would like her when I read this description – “Her long, weather-beaten hair was tied at the nape of her neck, and her face, unadorned by makeup, was tanned and beginning to show fine wrinkles.” Brave, sensible, and superbly skilled in martial arts, Balsa is 30 years old – a refreshing age for the heroine of a children’s book, when they usually haven’t hit 18.
Oh, there’s a child in this book – Chagum is the 11-year-old second son of the Mikado, the king who rules New Yogo, and he just happens to have inside him an egg laid by mysterious creature called the Water Spirit, who dwells in an unseen world that exists side by side, or perhaps superimposed on, our own world. Chagum, as the Moribito or Guardian of the Spirit, must somehow get this egg to its distant home before the dreaded Rarunga comes to eat the egg, which will not only bring on terrible drought but will kill Chagum. However, Chagum himself isn’t the main focus.
There is much palace intrigue, as various factions try to figure out how best to protect the kingdom from the turmoil, and because Chagum’s life is in danger, his mother secretly hires Balsa to get him away from the palace and hide him. Many exciting but mercifully brief fight scenes follow, all as stylish as if a bit more realistic than those in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Although there are injuries, no one dies.
The pursuit of Chagum by both Palace Hunters and the hungry Rarunga is exciting, but far more interesting to me was the friendships between Balsa, Chagum, her old pal Tanda, and the old but still feisty wise woman Torogai. There is romantic tension between Balsa and Tanda, but Balsa doesn’t want to commit to a relationship until she has saved eight lives, in atonement for eight lives that were lost to save her as a child.
The translation from Japanese to English flows naturally – I was almost never aware that I was reading a translation (okay, “weather-beaten hair” is a bit odd, but I like it). Balsa and Tanda are warm, humorous, and occasionally cranky characters, and it is perfectly obvious why Chagum, after spending a winter holed up with them, doesn’t want to return to his cold and scheming court. Torogai’s strong voice and gleeful cackle still ring in my ears.
It’s easy to understand why this 10-book series, a hit in
For ages 10 and up.