Nahoko Uehashi’s 1996 novel Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito ) is the first of twelve Moribito young-adult secondary-world-fantasy volumes.
Wandering bodyguard Balsa has no desire to become entangled in the affairs of royalty. Despite this, when she sees the carriage conveying Second Prince Chagum tumble from Yamakage Bridge, she dives into the raging river and saves the young boy.
There are consequences.
The Second Queen grants Balsa an audience, ostensibly to reward the foreigner for saving her son. In fact, the Second Queen has a difficult problem that she’d like Balsa to solve.
Chagum is incubating a demon. The boy’s father, the current Mikado, cannot allow the boy’s condition to become public knowledge … or for the demon to ravage New Yogo. Better that the boy die in a tragic mishap. Thus far, Chagum has survived the carefully orchestrated accidents (although his servants haven’t been as lucky). Eventually his luck will run out.
The boy’s mother hopes to save her son. Perhaps Balsa can protect the boy AND figure out how to deal with the demon.
Balsa can say no but if she does, she will have to be executed for knowing too much. Balsa graciously accepts her assignment and sneaks out of the castle with the Second Prince. To cover their flight, the Second Queen sets a fire in which the Second Prince is reported to have been consumed. This ruse doesn’t fool anyone.
We eventually learn that Chagum’s affliction is rooted in the sad history or New Yogo, a Yogonese colony that has seized the land of the indigenous Yakoo. The boy isn’t incubating a demon; he’s hosting an egg, a egg that must come to term if the land is to be saved.
However, the boy is being hunted by a demon.
The aristocracy and senior functionaries in this series are as ruthless as any of the characters in Game of Thrones … but they aren’t the protagonists. The viewpoint character is one of the expendables, a literal spear carrier whom the aristocrats might casually send to almost certain death. The focus isn’t aristocratic intrigue … it’s on how much it sucks to be a designated red shirt1. Or how one might be forced to choose between obeying orders that will probably get one killed or refusing them and getting executed along with one’s entire family pour encourager les autres.
New Yogo is a pleasant place if you’re the Mikado and his family, or one of the nobles. It’s a nastier place if you’re a servant, a guard, a peasant, or a beggar. It’s a sad place for the indigenes, the Yakoo. They haven’t been killed off (because most of them prudently fled into the mountains as soon as the foreign ships came into view). But they’ve lost their land and (to a great extent) their culture. Over the centuries, Yogo and Yakoo have intermarried. Yakoo have been Yogofied.
This would be terribly grim if the characters didn’t nevertheless find ways to connect with each other. True, official whim could end anyone’s life at any moment but until it does, Balsa has her friends and they have her.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is divided between character backstories (there are reasons why Balsa is a wandering bodyguard, none of them happy), character development, thrilling action scenes, and two-fisted historical research. Although the series is aimed at teen readers, the story is skillfully told; IMHO, adults will enjoy it as well. Good news if you do: there are eleven sequels2!
1: Lots of time on the practicalities of adventuring, from proper weapons-care to how often Balsa needs stitching up.
2: Ten of which have never (to my knowledge) been translated. This may or may not be a good reason to learn Japanese.