Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 20th 2010
Spice and Wolf vol. 1
For centuries Holo the Wisewolf has maintained a pact with village of Pasloe to insure good wheat harvests. As time passed and a new local noble developed more advanced farming techniques, lonely Holo came to feel that her commitment was no longer needed and she was being more used than respected. Taking human form as a teenage girl with wolf ears and tail, she hooks up with Lawrence, a peddler who regularly does business in Pasloe, and accompanies him on a journey as much about companionship for both as it is about providing a convenient means for her to return to her northern birthplace. Along the way she helps the enterprising Lawrence in business deals as repayment, though a complex scheme involving currency devaluation ultimately proves dangerous for them both. As their association grows, Lawrence starts to realize that there may, in fact, be something more important than profit. When a spice-transporting merchant and a wolf come together, things are never dull.
Typically when dealing with novels on which anime series are based, the release of the anime version in the United States far precedes the release of the original novel(s) and generally only happens if the anime was at least modestly successful; although those novel releases may hope to get broader exposure, they are really depending heavily on anime fans for their sales. That philosophy seems to be changing, though, and Spice and Wolf's case is evidence of that. Its American release date actually came a week before its anime version release, and other aspects of its release (yes, the cover) also suggest that it is intended to appeal to a broader audience up front rather than depend on the anime. Either that, or it hopes to capitalize on the anime's popularity the moment it hits the market rather than years after the fact. Either way, if it was done intentionally then it is an interesting experiment in timing which bears watching and a further sign that publishing companies importing Japanese novels are doing so in a more timely fashion.
In his Afterword, author Isuna Hasekura talks about aspiring to make a fortune from winning literary awards, and based on the writing seen here, it is obvious why he won one for this effort. His style is smooth and easy to read without coming up short on substance. He never gets bogged down in descriptiveness but still has a sufficient amount of it and never forgets that, in this story, the characters and their interactions matter far more than the events being portrayed; in that sense, his work stands in starkest possible contrast to Hideyuki Kikuchi's Vampire Hunter D novels.
Yes, the events in the story provide the framework, but the relationship which gradually forms here between the mercurial Holo and the more steadfast Lawrence is the novel's greatest strength. The byplay between them is clever and dynamic, constantly adjusting to circumstances and never losing its edge as Lawrence struggles to keep up with Holo in a playful battle of wits. Because of that, we get to follow along as Lawrence gradually realizes that Holo is far from the burden she initially seems to be; she does, in fact, become very important to him because she fills the big hole in his lonely life as a peddler: his lack of companionship. Although the story is told entirely from Lawrence's point of view, Holo's words and deeds also make it clear that the ache of loneliness a mortal could only barely comprehend underlies her words and deeds, so in a way Lawrence is just as valuable a find for her, too. Given where Hasekura shows both characters coming from, it is not at all hard to understand how they become so close and why Lawrence ultimately chooses Holo even over profit and his own safety.
The other advantage of Hasekura's style is that it adapts very easily to anime form. As a result, the first six episodes of the anime version very faithfully replicate the novel, down even to exactly duplicating lines of dialog in most places. In fact, the only substantive change in the anime version is the introduction of the character Cloe, who assumes and expands slightly upon the role of Yarei, Pasloe's wheat trader. In some senses this is an improvement, as the book never did establish a strong enough connection between Lawrence and the village of Pasloe to be satisfying in certain late scenes, although her presence leaves Lawrence seeming less isolated in the anime than he is in the novel. Beyond that, the differences are mostly just points of emphasis. The anime is better able to use Holo's body language to portray her personality, while the novel stresses the loneliness aspect, and how much Lawrence cherishes Holo, a bit more. The anime offers a more convincing conflict of interest for Lawrence in one late scene, while the novel is more effective at portraying the overwhelming nature of Holo's wolf form.
Ayakura's illustrations impress much less. The anime version remained faithful to the style of his character designs but improved on them, as his black-and-white pictures lack sharpness. His color pictures at the front do much better, with his best effort being a rather cute chibi picture of Holo. A great controversy erupted among fans when Yen Press opted to change Ayakura's original cover art (seen at right) with the far more mature and sexy look used on the actual American release cover (seen above). By all appearances this is an attempt to broaden interest beyond just the normal anime/manga crowd, in the hopes that this book could, perhaps, have a shot amongst mainstream fantasy titles. That new cover can certainly attract some attention, all right. . . if stores allow it to be shown somewhere other than just in the manga section, of course.
Yen Press otherwise does an efficient and effective job, producing a translation devoid of the incongruous choices of idioms and slang phrases which too often populate these Japanese imports. It is also free of typos, another problem which commonly plagues translations. Extras are limited to the aforementioned Afterword and the standard color pictures at the beginning.
At 230 pages Spice and Wolf is not a heavy read, and its $10.99 price point puts it higher than most other fantasy novels of comparable length. The size of this paperback release and its color artwork balance that out a bit, though, and it is a good foundation novel for a series which skews a bit older than normal lite novel fare. It offers only a little more insight for those who have seen the TV series, while those who read the novel first will doubtless find themselves wanting to see it in animation.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Strong focus on developing its central character relationship, solid writing and English production.
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