Like in the anime, Balsa is a spear-wielding bodyguard who gets hired by the Second Queen to be Prince Chagum's bodyguard shortly after she rescues him from drowning. Chagum's father, the Mikado, has ordered him to be assassinated because the Master Star Reader believes Chagum to be possessed by a demon that will bring a terrible drought to the land.
At this point in the anime, Balsa and Chagum spend a great deal of time evading the Mikado's men, Chagum learns a lot about how to blend in with commoners, and everybody tries to figure out what's really inside Chagum, only to later discover that what's inside him isn't a demon at all, but rather a Nyunga Ro Im (a Water Spirit). In the book, the Mikado's people learn rather quickly (but after several attempts upon Chagum's life have already been made) that they made a mistake and then turn their energies towards trying to figure out how to get the land through a drought and how to make sure that Chagum survives the Rarunga, a terrible being that apparently always rips apart the Nyunga Ro Chaga (Guardian of the Spirit). Tanda (a healer and Balsa's childhood friend) and Torogai know immediately that what's inside Chagum is not a demon, and they, too, try to figure out what to do about the Rarunga.
Although Shuga, a gifted young Star Reader, learns a great deal about the Nyunga Ro Im and that the Rarunga's weakness is fire, he doesn't have the time to learn everything he needs to. Still, he thinks he knows how to protect Chagum and how the hatching time will go. Unfortunately, everyone is missing a few vital pieces of information - they didn't realize that the egg would force Chagum to attract the Rarunga and that the egg would be hatching in an entirely different location than expected.
As the eight Hunters and Balsa fight to protect Chagum from the Rarunga, Chagum basically coughs up the egg, and Tanda figures out at the last second that the egg must be thrown high up into the air, where the nahji (a kind of bird) can catch it and then carry it away to the sea.
After the egg is carried away, Chagum must go back to the palace - since his brother died while he was in hiding, Chagum is now the Crown Prince, the Mikado's only possible heir. Although he's sad about leaving Balsa and Tanda, who have become almost a family to him, Chagum knows his duty. In the end, Balsa, too, must leave. Although she said that, after saving her eighth life, she would see about settling down (possibly marrying Tanda and having those kids everyone keeps encouraging her to have), her time with Chagum helped her learn a little more about what Jiguro (the man who protected her as a child) must have felt. She wants to go back to Kanbal for a bit and see Jiguro's friends and family, so that she can tell them what happened to him and what kind of life he led after he left them.
My comments reference the anime heavily, because the first way I experienced this series was through the anime. However much my comments might sometimes make it seem as though the anime came first, though, it was the book that came first - it's just a little hard to remember that when I didn't even know that the anime series was based on a book until well after I'd seen a few episodes.
The basic shell of the story is the same in the book and the anime, only with, I felt, less flashy magic and action in the book. So, overall, it felt like the anime was a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, and I therefore had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen in the book.
That doesn't mean there weren't differences, though. In fact, there were quite a few differences. In the book, Chagum and his brother weren't close, so his brother's death didn't really affect him at all, emotionally. As I said in the synopsis, the whole bit about "is this a demon" was barely even an issue. Toya and Saya, who show up enough in the anime that I had no problem remembering their names, are barely even in the book, and Chagum never spends much time with them - that part with Toya, Chagum, and the fixed game was completely an invention for the anime. The eight Hunters, although somewhat more developed (you learn a bit about what the childhood of one of them was like, which makes a scene in the anime make a bit more sense), are also not in the book nearly as much. I found it much more believable that the Shuga of the book was a fisherman's son than the silver-haired Shuga of the anime. Finally, the last part of my list of differences: you learn a lot more about the Yogoan past, what the first king was like (a guy who couldn't think for himself), and that the first Master Star Reader (Kainan Nanai) basically ruled the country.
I kind of liked the anime more than this book, because I felt like I got to know the characters better - maybe not their pasts, as much (I'm thinking of the Hunters, here), but they felt more like people rather than characters. True, the one Hunter was a bit more sappy in the anime, but at least he felt like someone I could like and understand. Plus, Balsa and Chagum got more chances to be cooler in the anime - it really does help sometimes to be able to actually see action scenes happen, and the action scenes in the anime, although not the focus, were pretty good.
None of that is to say that I disliked the book. I'm still a bit ambivalent about the book - actually, I'm ambivalent about a lot of "books the anime was based on," like, for instance, Fuyumi Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms series. There seems to always be some about the translations (or writing?) of these books that seems a little clunky.
The list below will look very familiar if you read my post for the Moribito anime. What can I say, I'm lazy.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Princess Mononoke (anime movie) - While fighting to save his village from an attack by a demonic wild boar, Ashitaka is inflicted with a deadly curse that forces him to leave his village in search of a cure. He ends up in the middle of a war between the forest gods (including a girl raised by wolves, or maybe wolf gods) and a village determined to continue producing iron. This movie's setting feels similar to the one in Moribito, a sort of fantasy-filled past.
- The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - In this series, an unhappy high school student from our world encounters a strange man who swears allegiance to her. The two of them are attacked by demon-like beasts, and the student ends up being transported to another world, one in which there seems to be no one she can trust. Somehow, she must survive and figure out why she was brought to this other world. Like Moribito, the setting feels almost like something from a historical anime/book, with enough fantasy elements mixed in to make it clear that it's not quite an Earth setting. Although the high school student, Yoko, doesn't start off very strong, she becomes stronger because she must. Those who liked the survival elements of Balsa and Chagum's story may like this series.
- Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - When she was only 8 years old, Katsa learned that she is Graced with killing. By the time she is 16, Katsa is in control of her abilities and has become King Randa's tool for punishing those who disobey and defy him. However, what Randa doesn't know is that Katsa has formed a secret council designed to right wrongs perpetrated by the kings of all the kingdoms. After Katsa rescues the elderly Prince Tealiff, she finds herself working with Prince Tealiff's grandson, Po, to try to uncover the motive behind his kidnapping. Another story with a strong female character, fantasy elements, and a pseudo-historical setting.