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Following his nearly disastrous dealings in Ruvenheigen, Lawrence heads north with Holo into more pagan-leaning lands as he searches for more clues about the location of Yoitsu, Holo's possibly-long-destroyed home village. They arrive in the town of Kumersun as a major winter festival is about to begin, offering Lawrence a chance to entertain Holo while he uses his merchant contacts to arrange a meeting with a sage who might know more about Yoitsu. What begins as a simple diversion becomes dramatically more complicated when Amati, a fellow Rowen Trade Guild merchant whom Lawrence and Holo met as they headed into Kumersun, becomes so smitten with Holo that he challenges Lawrence to a merchant's duel for Holo's “freedom.” The challenge could not be more ill-timed, either, as a big tiff with Holo over secrets Lawrence kept from her leaves Lawrence wondering if she might be ready to cast him off for a new boy toy. As the duel becomes a struggle over fluctuations in an overpriced but high-demand commodity, Lawrence comes to realize that, even for the most diehard merchant, some things are worth more than gold.
If the second Spice and Wolf novel had a major flaw, it was that its structure was a bit too repetitive compared to the first novel. Author Isuna Hasekura has rectified that for this third novel, which equates to the first story arc (episodes 1-6) of the Spice and Wolf II anime version. Instead of following his already-proven path to success, he puts an entirely different kind of challenge before his hero, one which results in a different kind of stress and an entirely different type of resolution. The result is a fresher story which reduces Holo's foreground involvement for a good chunk of the story but yet loses not a speck of tension or ability to involve the reader – and that despite how pivotal Holo is to the franchise's success.
Actually, saying that Holo fades into the background may be an overstatement, as her presence (or lack thereof) is always having an impact even when she isn't around. The previous novels have also delved into Lawrence's gradually deepening feelings for Holo, but here they become the main focus, especially after the crisis and terrible misunderstanding halfway through the novel which separates the two. Here it is not their physical and financial well-being at stake, but their status as a couple – but as anyone who has ever read romance novels knows, that can be plenty enough to drive a plot. When the two are together in the story, their charming byplay and banter continue to make them such a fun couple to read about.
As with the previous novels, the plot centers on some aspect of economics. The first novel dealt with currency exchange and the devaluing of currency; the second explored price fluctuations in commodities, smuggling, and buying on margin. This one instead essentially focuses on market speculation, with the concept of “selling short” on stocks as a key element and the fundamental differences between town and traveling mercantilism as an important subtheme. In fact, the plot so diligently focuses on that, the relationship issues, and Lawrence's efforts to collect information about Youitsu that it has no place in its 246 pages for any kind of action scene. Those expecting Holo to transform at some point will also be disappointed, though a second supernatural creature is (subtly) brought into the picture. In fact, Holo's lifespan and wolf characteristics in her human form are really the only true concession to fantasy literature present here; this could otherwise almost be a work of historical fiction.
Hasekura's writing style remains essentially unchanged from the previous two novels: a light, freely-flowing delivery which tells the story entirely from Lawrence's point of view, heavily emphasizes dialogue, and overuses short paragraphs. He does an excellent job of vividly portraying new characters without going into cumbersome detail and greatly expands the scope of his stories' setting without delving into tiresome travelogue. (The greater setting detail present here is, in fact, the one significant advantage that the novel version has over the anime version.) Though he portrays the economic principles at work in as simple a fashion as possible, they still may be hard to follow for anyone who has not had an Economics course. While there is nothing particularly graphic or explicit in the writing, the more mature themes and story elements present place this one in the 15+ age rating.
As it did with the second novel, Yen Press has released this one with the original Japanese cover (shown at left) and a standard slipcover using an illustration of a live model in a similar pose (shown above). Physical size, paper quality, and price are also consistent with the previous releases. The book opens with a half-dozen glossy pages bearing color illustrations and has a handful of black-and-white illustrations dispersed throughout, all once again by Jyuu Ayakura and all once again looking a bit less refined than the designs actually used for the relevant anime series. It closes with a two-page Afterword and brief bio blurbs for author and artist. A couple of grammatical errors were noted, but this was not a big problem.
The ultimate verdict is quite simple: if you liked the first two novels, there is no reason to believe that the third novel will not also work for you. Even though its content is duplicated almost exactly by the anime version, there are still enough tiny extra details here and there to make this one a worthwhile read as a complement piece. It will also serve as a nice place holder until Funimation finally gets the second season of the anime released.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Fresher story, efficient portrayal of characters and setting, plenty of tension.
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