Moribito II picks up just after Moribito ends, with Balsa returning to her home country of Kanbal to visit her Master and father-figure Jiguro's relatives, and explain about the circumstances surrounding their departure twenty some-odd years ago. Balsa and Jiguro had originally fled Kanbal because of Balsa's father's involvement in a royal conspiracy, but the king who might have considered her a threat is dead now, making it safe for her return. Except it's really not.
When she arrives, Balsa learns that Jiguro has been turned in to the nationally-despised villain of a tale that the former king had fabricated in order to explain Jiguro's absence, and cover up a political power maneuver. Naturally, this makes Balsa a threat, and her presence has the potential to expose the truth behind this national fairy tale, and its hero, Jiguro's brother. To cover his ass, Jiguro's brother makes Balsa an outlaw, and sets his minions out to capture her.
At the same time, an ancient ceremony that for centuries has ensured the survival of Kanbal is drawing near, and the new king, without the guidance of anyone who had been present at the previous ceremony, is plotting a maneuver that could lead his entire country to ruin. Luckily, it's all very cleverly tied together, and it's up to Balsa and a young boy named Kassa to prevent this disaster.
Moribito II actually has a pretty awesome story. The first half or so, I'll admit, is a little slow, but by the halfway mark, I couldn't put the book down. The action escalates quickly, and the race against time to save the kingdom is a great way to build tension. The climax itself isn't disappointing - it's an action-packed flurry of martial arts and trippy magic, yet at the same time is deeply emotionally intense and satisfying. I wish every book could handle a boss fight that well.
The themes and conflicts tackled in Moribito II are very similar to those in the first book. Yet again, an entire country's perception of history has been distorted thanks to a self-serving origin story. Like the tale of New Yogo's first Emperor vanquishing the ~evil~ Moribito spirit in the previous book, Kanbal has a story in which its founder impressed the aptly-named Mountain King, and stuck a bargain to secure the hand of his daughter and the wealth of his land. Both stories are bullshit, of course, and the truth is potentially less flattering. Hence why the monarchies embellished the stories, changing them to better support their status and assertion of divine right to rule over the land.
I love the idea here, of personal and national narratives being altered to make men and countries the hero of their own stories, even when they aren't. It's a perpetually relevant, thought-provoking subject for Uehashi to bring up - an illustration of how subjective history can become, how easy it is to lose the truth, and how dangerous this can be. It's some pretty heavy stuff in a children's fantasy story. WHO KNEW, RIGHT?
Speaking of fantasy, I enjoyed the new fantastical elements Uehashi developed in this installment. Rather than copy-pasting the mythology and history from New Yogo, Uehashi created a new backstory and set of traditions for the people of Kanbal. It's not a re-tread of what we saw in New Yogo, but still fits in the same world. It sounds like common sense, but mythological diversity isn't really something I see a lot as a paranormal romance reader, and I liked it.
As one of the characters observes in the book, the people of Kanbal have an analog for the Yogese's spiritual world of Nayug, but they don't call it that, and it doesn't work exactly the same. That's the beauty of the world-building in a nut-shell: similar, but different. Kanbal has it's own little details that differentiate it from New Yogo - foods, terms, people, architecture, social structure, etc. These kinds of little details allow you to more easily believe that these two cultures actually existed and developed, close enough for some things to cross over, but separate and under different enough circumstances for them to have a distinct culture and set of experiences. It all gives the story and world more credibility, for me.
I wasn't as attached to the side characters this time around as I was in Moribito, but then, Moribito II doesn't have a twenty-six episode television series to go along with it, and Balsa doesn't really bond as much with the child hero of the story as she did with Chagum. I did like the child protagonist okay, though. Kassa was a good kid, and while he had a nice character arc, I kinda wish his sister had gotten a bigger/more important role.
What was nifty was seeing Balsa reunited and bonding with her aunt, her only remaining relative. They form a companionable relationship that extends beyond the time that they're actually together, and I loved seeing Balsa's aunt supporting and trying to help her niece, even after Balsa had gone. The whole thing was made doubly nifty by the fact that Balsa's aunt was a strong-willed, smart, independently successful doctor. Fuck yeah, professional women flying solo in a feudal fantasy world.
Once again, though, the best part of the book was Balsa. On a character level, I loved what this story meant for her. There's a great progression here, of Balsa moving forward and finally coming to terms with the events that drove and shaped her life. It's a natural next step, on the heels of what Balsa learned with Chagum in Moribito, and the continuation of that emotional arc gives both books a great cohesion, in terms of character development.
It's kind of funny, because both the plot in both books was driven by a male character - in Moribito, Chagum, and in this, Jiguro - but they ultimately end up being about Balsa. She's the key, the chosen one, and the climax of Moribito II hinges on an instance of character development...
Read full review at You're Killing.Us