1999’s Guardian of the Darkness (translated by Cathy Hirano) is the second volume of Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito series of secondary-universe fantasy novels. It’s the most recent of the lengthy series to be translated into English and also a demonstration of how poorly I defer gratification. I just reviewed the first book in the series and I could not wait ….
Twenty-five years ago, Balsa fled Kanbal with her foster father, Jiguro. The malevolent king whom the pair were fleeing, is long dead, as is Jiguro himself. With the adventures of the first volume behind her, Balsa decides that the time has come to return to her homeland.
Balsa retraces the subterranean route she and her foster father used to escape Kanbal. It’s an unnecessarily difficult route that has an unintended benefit: she happens upon fourteen-year-old Kassa and his nine-year-old sister Gina, just in time to save them from a hyohlu. Exploring the caves is a well-established test of courage for Kanbalese youths. The siblings barely survive. But at least they have had a salutary lesson in prudence.
It just so happens that the pair belong to the Musa clan, as did Jiguro1.
Although the central players in the drama that sent her fleeing to New Yogo are long dead, Balsa is prudent enough not to reveal to the children exactly who she is or why she is there. Instead she claims to be on a mission on behalf of her dead foster father and swears the pair to secrecy.
But Kasa and Ginno waste surprisingly little time informing their Musa clan elders about the encounter. The revelation alarms Yuguro, Jiguro’s brother. The woman the kids encountered was carrying a spear that, as described, could be Jiguro’s spear. The woman might be Balsa. If so, she must be detained and silenced, lest certain inconvenient truths be revealed and Yuguro lose his position of power.
The old king didn’t just send men to kill Jiguro. He convinced them that Jiguro had committed a terrible affront to the kingdom — the theft of nine sacred spear-rings — and that killing Jiguro was no mere political ploy; It was a just punishment. The hunters sent by the king had all died … save Yuguro. Yuguro parlayed his knowledge into power. When the king died, Yuguro made himself the power behind the throne.
As a consequence of Yuguro’s bold schemes, a religious rite vital to the well-being of the poverty-stricken kingdom has been deferred for a generation. The knowledge needed to carry it out has largely been lost, as those who last carried it out have died of old age. No matter: Yuguro has an even bolder scheme that will save the kingdom; he has a plan to topple the demi-god Mountain King who lives beneath Kanbal and seize its wealth for his own.
It’s a plan with a vital flaw. It cannot succeed. Attempting it will have dire consequences for the kingdom. The only person who can prevent disaster is Balsa.
Whose death Yuguro has just decreed.
Many fantasy authors might benefit from examining Uehashi’s world-building, which displays in two books and two kingdoms more cultural variety than many authors fit into entire worlds or over many books.
A running theme in the first two books in this series (and for all I know, the ones as yet untranslated) is that secrecy ends badly. Sometimes the secrecy is self-serving, concealing a crime or an embarrassing truth (such as the fact that nation’s founders were not the grand figures their descendants would like them to have been). Sometimes the people in the know feel that sacred truths are too holy to reveal. Whatever the motive, the consequence is usually that people make plans that are doomed to fail or will have dire consequences if they do succeed.
Another running theme in the series is that rulers keep ordering Balsa’s death (for reasons that seem compelling at the time) and discover that their minions can’t kill her. She’s faster and more lethal than even the best warriors sent against her. This is upsetting to characters who firmly believe that women are by their nature unsuited for combat.
I like Balsa, I’ve enjoyed the two books in the series that I’ve been able to read in translation, and I’m sad that I won’t get to read more of her adventures.
- Running into Musa kids in the caves isn’t a huge coincidence, as Jiguro had earlier led Balso out of Kanbal through the caverns he knew, the ones next to the Musa clan territory.