Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 10th 2010
Spice and Wolf
NOTE: The cover picture shown is for the book's actual cover and not the slipcover.
Two weeks have passed since the trouble in Pazzio (as detailed in the first novel), and Lawrence and companion Holo have fallen into a comfortable routine of travel and playful exchanges, with Lawrence still typically coming out on the short end. A fresh complication comes into play when the pair encounters a young shepherdess named Norah, an auspicious event both because female shepherds are quite rare and because Holo has a long-standing hatred for shepherds due to their protection of “walking meat.” (It's a wolf thing, you see.) The fact that Norah is rather fetching and seems to catch Lawrence's eye doesn't sit well with Holo, either. A greater complication arises, though, when a combination of Lawrence's greed and an unexpected fluctuation in trade good prices puts Lawrence on the brink of financial and professional ruin. Backed into a corner, Lawrence hatches a desperate plan, one which involves both Norah and an equally desperate trading company and which could potentially save them all in the long run. The plan carries potentially deadly risk – and not just from human elements – but with a Wisewolf on his side, Lawrence at least has a potent, if capricious, ally.
Author Isuna Hasekura follows up his award-winning success with his founding Spice and Wolf novel with another strong entry in the franchise. Called simply Volume 2, the second novel is a direct continuation of the first which follows with only a comparatively minor time lag. While the first few pages briefly review past events, and the story is not deeply connected to the previous one, attempting to read this novel without having read the first one (or seen the corresponding anime episodes) is not advised, as the story makes several references to earlier events without much elaboration. Seeing how the Lawrence/Holo relationship has developed into what it is at this point is also crucial to fully understanding the relationship tribulations that happen here.
For those who have read the first novel, Hasekura's writing and storytelling style remain intact, which is both a Good Thing and a Bad Thing. On the good side, he continues to skillfully handle Holo's characterization and the exchanges between Lawrence and Holo, both of which lie at the heart of the franchise's charm. He also, once again, adeptly involves his leads in another tale grounded deeply in medieval economics, highlighting how religion can play deeply into the way people do business, how much or little trust is involved in business dealings, how knowing how to read people is so important in the business of trade, and how the specific formalities of discussing business play out even in the most stressful of situations. This may also be the only anime/manga-related work where drastic price fluctuations due to an unexpected shift in supply and demand is the key plot point, although the scheme designed to save Lawrence's livelihood also has its own nice climax. The way he paints a merchant's distinctive view of the world continues to be fascinating. On the downside, the overall pacing and structure of the story, including the action climax, is a bit repetitive and Isuna is a little too fond of one-liner paragraphs – a phenomenon not necessarily limited to his writing amongst English translations of original Japanese lite novels but one which nonetheless gets annoying after a while.
While the temperamental wolf-in-teen-girl-form Holo is unquestionably the star attraction, Norah ably fills the role of the featured guest despite only directly being involved in about a third of the book. She is convincingly-portrayed, as is the very practical predicament she is trapped in which ultimately makes her vulnerable to being talked into Lawrence's scheme; watching Lawrence steer her into doing exactly what he wants, without forcing the issue, is like watching a con job go down, and that Lawrence has enough misgivings to feel dirty about doing it, despite his desperate need for her participation, is also perfectly understandable. In any other anime-related product she'd be painted as a moe character, but Hasekura skillfully avoids that by masking her vulnerability with a calm competence capable of discouraging wolf pack attacks.
For those who have seen the first anime series, episodes 8-13 were such a direct adaptation of this novel that it even duplicates the dialogue virtually word-for-word in many places. Since there are only 280 pages of story here, the anime padded itself out a bit by playing out some scenes that were only described or implied in the novel, such as one showing the townspeople shunning Norah as she walks through Ruvenheigen or a brief scene showing Holo confronting the wolf pack towards the end, but this is also partly a result of the anime, unlike the novel, being told from a third-person perspective rather than Lawrence's exclusive perspective. The only change of any note between the versions is a minor variation on how the book's final scene plays out in the anime (which makes the anime version much funnier) and the only entirely new scenes are the scenes at the very end of episode 13, which happen after the end of the book. The advantage of the anime version is getting to see all of Holo's idiosyncrasies in action, while the advantage of the book version is getting a bit more background information about the setting.
After the big controversy about the two different covers during the release of the first book, Yen Press has apparently decided to compromise by shipping this oversized paperback book with a slipcover which uses the same human model from the first book's cover (albeit this time in appropriate clothing - see left) while retaining the original Japanese cover, in essentially the same pose, on the book cover itself. The book features eight pages of color illustrations up front and several more black-and-white illustrations throughout, all once again provided by Jyuu Ayakura and done in a competent but unimpressive manga style. The book closes out with a two-paged Afterword by Hasekura and a page with brief bios for both author and writer. Yen Press's translation is smooth and almost entirely free of grammatical errors.
Though longer and a bit meatier in terms of plot, Hasekura's sophomore effort is not quite as sharp and fresh as the ground-breaking original effort, nor does it delve quite as heavily into the underlying loneliness which draws his leads together. Nonetheless, this novel does everything necessary to hold the interest of those who fell in love with the original book and the story is far from resting on its laurels.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ More delightful Lawrence/Holo interaction, Norah, expanded setting detail.
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