Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi has just recently been translated into English (click the link to reserve it at our library!). However, the book and it's sequel, anime series, and manga series are already quite popular in Japan.
Instead of following the traditional fantasy plot model (young person gets quest, young person travels to other location, gaining friends along the way, young person accomplishes task, and gets girl/boy or becomes king/queen/famous hero) but since this book was initially written for a Japanese audience, it doesn't follow that model at all. The difference makes for a much more interesting read!
Balsa, the heroine, is a bodyguard. Far from being young and inexperienced, she is in her thirties and talented in martial arts. Her primary weapon is a spear, when she needs a weapon at all. Trained since childhood, Balsa promised to save eight lives to make up for the lives lost to save her own.
Balsa travels constantly, taking jobs when she can. As the story begins, she is crossing the commoner's bridge as the Second Prince, Chagum, is crossing the nobleman's bridge. As she looks on, an ox is spooked and it knocks the prince into the flooded, raging river below.
Instinctively, Balsa rescues him. But she is unaware of Chagum's real problem--he's guarding the egg of the Water Spirit, placed within him while it matures. If Chagum's father, gets his way, Chagum won't be around much longer. But that still could be more merciful than if the egg is eaten by Rarunga, an Earth Spirit. Not only would Chagum die, a drought would overtake the country.
Balsa agrees to protect Chagum as the two of them ensure the egg makes it to maturity. As she protects him, he learns how life is outside the palace. He also begins to really appreciate life for the first time.
I loved this book, and I think the second will be even better. Uehashi had to spend some time introducing all the characters that will show up in Balsa's life again--Jiguro, Tanda, and Torogai to name a few.
The writing doesn't suffer from the translation or the action, as I too often see in literature. It's an exciting and engaging story that will keep readers wanting more.
As an added bonus (and guys who love to read will understand what a big deal this is)--Moribito is suitable for male and female readers! That's right, no sappy love stories here. Instead, Balsa is a fantastic protagonist with strenth and martial arts skills that will appeal to any lover of Japanese culture or fantasy (Not to mention young women (me) tired of wimpy girls that need rescued by big, strong, handsome men).
Make sure to check out the Moribito anime series while you're reading this. It's also fantastic, but I'd read the book first if I were you. It's made by the same people who brought us all Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and those of you who know that series get what a big deal that is!