Synopsis: Kraft Lawrence is a lone travelling merchant who moves from city to city, selling his wares, and taking in the cultures of the people he meets. In one town, he takes in a ritual that invokes the blessing of the wolf-goddess Holo, who watches over the town’s wheat harvest. That night, the beautiful Holo appears before Lawrence in his wagon, and in a mutual agreement, they go on a journey to find her birthplace in the lands to the North.
In my continuing series of light novel reviews, another book that I have recently finished was the first volume of Isuna Hasekura’s Spice and Wolf. This introductory piece was originally entered in the Dengeki Novel Prize and won the Silver Prize in 2004. Previous winners of Dengeki included Boogiepop in 1997 for the Grand Prize, as well as Baccano in 2002 for the Gold Prize. Its achievement in this annual competition is well-deserved, as the book is an excellent alternate take on the fantasy genre by building a heavily economically driven world and infusing it with the most charming of romance.
Like most serial fiction, Spice and Wolf does its job in its expository volume in introducing the characters and immediately developing their relationship into an established status quo for the rest of the series. Lawrence is a witty, experienced tradesman who gains the reader’s empathy for his lifetime of solitude. Holo, the wolf-goddess, takes the form of a lively, beautiful human girl with wolf ears and a bushy tail, and is even more knowledgeable in trade than he is. Their relationship starts off like that of a contract between merchants, exchanging one deed for another, but as the story develops, the time spent between the two amounts to something more, as they exchange witty banter and involve themselves in the activities of various cityfolk.
The main storyline of this particular volume revolves around trading deal that Lawrence agrees upon, involving the purchase of depreciating silver currency, which has great potential for capital gain for both Lawrence and Holo. But as the agreement turns south, Holo’s true identity is discovered by the parties Lawrence deals with. Their gradually developed relationship leading up to this exchange is put on the line as Lawrence tries to reconcile his growing feelings for Holo and his duty as a merchant to out-deal this dangerous enemy.
The timing of this review is a bit weird, as the anime adaptation is already finished its second season, and has added an OVA and two Special episodes on top of that. There is also an ongoing manga adaptation that’s released 6 volumes up until now. It’s difficult to imagine anyone who’d be interested in reading the Spice and Wolf light novel without having heard of the manga or anime first. Many will make comparisons between the three, stating a certain medium’s superiority over the other, but I’m glad to say that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this series without any prior exposure to the adaptations.
There’s a sense of purity in doing so, as it allows me to make judgments on the writing itself as it is, without having precognitions of how the story develops later on, or what the characters or settings look like in fuller detail otuside of the fantastic illustrations drawn by Ju Ayakura. My evaluation for this book is based on its own merits, and I can say without any other reservations that Spice and Wolf is a fantastic book, and its translation does a great job in capturing the fantasy feel.
The diction and dialogue in Spice and Wolf is consistent between the characters in-universe, especially that of Lawrence and Holo. Their brief conversations with each other and the other merchants greatly capitulate the fantasy setting seen in mainstream works. It feels like a very engaging session of Dungeons and Dragons roleplay, but without the dungeons or dragons. This universe eschews all elements of fantasy, save for Holo herself, for more mundane aspects of society such as trade and economics, and yet Hasekura manages to keep the story fantastic in scale while managing to keep it all within a nice little light novel package, accessible by readers of any age.
Hasekura manages to bring this boring world of business to life by injecting a naturally developing romance into it. This relationship between Holo and Lawrence takes on a very gradual build-up, starting with a very business-like proposition between the two characters during their meet cute moment, but as time passes, the reader sees the great chemistry between them in their conversations, which pays off immensely during the main plot points that threaten to separate them. A great writer gives the main character two levels of desire, and often has to make a moral choice that fulfills both at the same time. Lawrence does this by reconciling his developing feelings for Holo with his need to save himself and Holo from corrupted merchants who threaten to kill the deal. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not Lawrence makes a profit from the ordeal, since his resulting relationship to Holo afterward cannot be priced in currency.
The marriage of romance to business is one that Hasekura forges in a very creative way, but no matter how well it is written, business and love are two very contrasting concepts, especially when it comes to business in the context of a medieval-like fantasy setting. The very concept putting them together requires a give-and-take from two very contrasting worlds. As a result, Hasekura loses a bit of effectiveness from both in order to mesh them together effectively, and spends a lot of words explaining relevant concepts without driving the plot further. It’s very awkward when looking at the different angles individually, since neither side is developed enough to be good on its own, but the assembled package has a more value than its somewhat components. In short, readers should not expect to learn about economics from this book; at least, no more than they would expect to become better romancers as well.
In conclusion, Spice and Wolf is a well-written and interestingly translated product that is worth the purchase. Isuna Hasekura created a very peculiar world in the first volume, combining beguilement with bartering, flirting with finance, and passion with produce. A marriage of the two conecpts is status quo for the forthcoming installments, and I look forward to evaluating their value in the developing story.
(Spice and Wolf is published in North America by Yen Press. Volumes 2-4 are also available, with Volume 5 set for release in December of this year.)