Travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence dreams of amassing enough money to open a store in town – but for now, his life is dangerous and lonely, his home simply the back of his wagon. Meanwhile, for centuries Holo the wolf goddess ministered to a small village as its harvest deity – but now the villagers have a jealous new God, and new methods of farming. Neither needed nor wanted, Holo decides to return to her distant birthplace, and which travelling merchant should be around for her to hitch a hike?
Spice and Wolf is a series of Japanese light novels – I think the closest Western analogy is “young adult novels with a handful of illustrations” – following the adventures of the duo. It’s perhaps better known in the West for its two-season anime adaptation (the first novel overlaps with episodes 1-6 of the anime), whose first season I watched when it came out a few years ago. However, my enjoyment was marred by poor fansubs, and so when I saw the first novel available in English, I grabbed it. I’m happy to report it met my expectations.
The heart of the book is the dynamic between the two main characters. Holo is teasing, gluttonous, sometimes temperamental, undoubtedly difficult – but also shrewd, loyal, and usefully for the duo, able to supernaturally sort truth from lies. She has enough of the capricious deity in her to make her feel convincingly alien; not enough to prevent her from being sympathetic. Lawrence is the more level-headed of the two, a hard-working, kind-hearted Everyman. Their banter is a delight to read – and so is how, when the chips are down, they come through for each other.
Plotwise, the book stays true to Lawrence’s occupation: this has to be the only fantasy novel in existence about currency trading. Conspicuously absent are dark lords, evil emperors, conquering armies, and other staples of the genre. The world is pseudo-Medieval Europe, with little in the way of magic or intelligent non-humans – so far, Holo is the only example of either category. Both appear done reasonably well*, with especial kudos for the original subject matter of the plot – I’d like to see more along those lines! The prose is a bit clunky, but I stopped noticing after the first chapter or so. I do like the slightly archaic feel of Holo’s dialogue, compared to Lawrence’s – it’s consistent with their respective ages. Lastly, a note about the cover: it’s racier than the book’s contents. Luckily, taking off the dust jacket reveals the original Japanese manga-style picture of a fully clothed Holo, which could be useful in avoiding misunderstandings!
Ultimately Spice and Wolf: Volume 1 is a short read, but it’s a very enjoyable one. As one of the few (maybe the only?) “economic fantasy” novels I’ve seen, it occupies a severely underused niche; even defining it more broadly as a novel about “everyday life in a fantasy world” still makes it fairly unique. Add interesting, likeable characters, and the end result is a book that should appeal well beyond fans of the anime. Recommended.
* With the disclaimer that I don’t know enough about real-world medieval trade to spot any inaccuracies.
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