Moribito: The Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahuro Uehasi, is a book placed in a world directly similar to feudal Japan, and centered around Balsa, a female bodyguard with a debt to pay. This story is part of a popular series in Japan (10 books plus an anime series), but only two novels have made the cross to America. Both are great.
Balsa is commissioned to be the bodyguard for the Second Prince – twelve year-old Chagum – who has been the focus of a series of near-fatal “accidents.” It turns out that the great water spirit has chosen Chagum to carry its egg safely back to the sea, which thus makes him the target of the Egg-Eater, a mud monster called Rurunga. As if that wasn’t enough, through some confusion and machinations, Chagum is also targeted by the Hunters, a secret team of assassins sent by the Mikado, Chagum’s father. Balsa certainly has her work cut out for her, but if she and Chagum don’t get the spirit egg to safety their land will suffer a terrible drought and many will die.
In Balsa we find a character we haven’t really come across yet. She’s a master with the short spear, and definitely kick-ass, but she’s thirty years old, and therefore not of the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed bunch of barely post-pubescent wannabe warriors from most other fantasy/adventure/quest-type YA books. She is practical to a fault, and while she took a vow to save eight people after eight people died for her, she has since discovered that it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. After all, in order to save someone, you usually have to save them from someone, and then you’ve hurt another person (often more than one) and keeping tally like that doesn’t work. Balsa finally admits that she just likes fighting, quest or no quest. That’s pretty familiar for male characters, but exceedingly rare for female.
Plus she’s super down-to-earth. Instead of trying to protect Chagum, she outfits him with a thick strip of tanned leather to wear under his clothes to protect his vitals, and teaches him basic self-defense and survival techniques. She treats the young prince as a man, and he in turn responds with increasing maturity and trust. That doesn’t mean he’s not prone to a tantrum or two, but nor does it mean she doesn’t care about him. Uehashi was inspired to create this story when she saw a preview for an action movie, and during a scene involving a burning bus she saw a woman (just one of the extras) leading a young boy to safety. She began thinking about the relationship between the woman and the boy – what if there wasn’t one? Why was she protecting him? Thus (with some obvious changes) Moribito was born. I think it’s awesome to see a whole story spun out from the idea as woman as protector instead of what is protected.