Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 20th 2011
Spice & Wolf
Six days after the events in Kumersun (as detailed in the third novel), Lawrence and Holo head into the northern town of Enberch, where they get directions to their true destination: the village of Tereo, near which supposedly lies an abbey whose residing monk specializes in collecting stories of pagan gods and thus might know more about Yoitsu and the Moon-Eating Bear. The village priest supposedly knows where the abbey is, but Lawrence and Holo instead discover a much-ignored church run by Elsa, a young woman who aspires to be a priest in a village where most instead worship a snake god. Neither she nor the villager elder admit to any knowledge about the abbey, and Lawrence's practiced merchant's eye also discerns an equally big peculiarity in an apparent trade arrangement between Tereo and the larger Enberch which is astonishingly favorable to Tereo. Getting to the bottom of the former mystery requires winning the trust of Elsa and the villagers, but the latter proves far more troublesome and dangerous. When a crisis arises that threatens the economic welfare of a village, travelers and those on the fringe of the village's social structure tend to get made scapegoats. Fortunately for Lawrence, he has some powerful – if sometimes contrary – help on his side and a nimble enough mind to take advantage of it.
The first three arcs of the two Spice and Wolf anime series cleave so closely to the first three novels that they are frequently nearly word-for-word adaptations. This fourth novel, however, bears no connection to the fourth anime arc. Instead it tells an entirely different story that will doubtlessly delight fans of the franchise, as it offers up healthy doses of everything that has made the series great so far while still telling a story that is fresh, involving, and remarkably intricate for its relatively short (245 page) length.
By this point in the story the relationship between Lawrence and Holo has settled into a comfortable pattern, and nothing that happens here in any way shakes the bond that has formed between them. The word “love” never comes up, but the depth of caring that each has for the other is indisputable even as Holo continues to try to trap Lawrence in her little games or berate him for having (unintentionally) mistreated her tail. The way they show their caring comes in indirect but, for the reader, highly effective forms: Lawrence shows it in his willingness to make very un-merchant-like decisions where Holo is involved, while Holo shows it in the way that she easily gets jealous when Lawrence interacts with other women and never lets her piquishness get in the way of helping Lawrence when he needs it. The degree to which both continue to enjoy the company of the other continues throughout and the apprehension that both feel about what might happen at their journey's end grows. Like in previous novels, Lawrence also shows here that he is not always at the mercy of Holo, as his ultimate solution to Tereo's woes is a simple but inspired one which makes perfect sense but is extremely unlikely to be seen coming. When it comes to mercantile interests, even Holo cannot match his cleverness.
One of the strengths of Isuna Hasekura's writing has always been the banter between Lawrence and Holo, and that certainly continues, but the other strength of his writing takes center stage here: his ability to craft genuinely interesting plots which use Renaissance-era economics as a centerpiece but also draw in social and religious matters. Here the social structure of European-styled period villages comes into play, with a convincing explanation about why a miller could be one of the most resented people in a village, how a village priest might not necessarily be respected, and the benefits and dangers for a traveler in visiting a little-trafficked village. Religion once again has a major impact here, including a look at how the mere presence of a church in an otherwise-pagan village can be a critical defense against a town eager to expand its economic and religious influence and how religion can be manipulated both to cause and to solve economic and social problems. Tying it all together are the economics of the situation, and once again both the main conflict and climax of the story come down to economic rather than action issues even though a bit of the supernatural (on Holo's part) does get involved in the latter.
The level of Hasekura's writing skill remains high, although he still shows too much of a penchant for using short paragraphs. For better or worse, Jyuu Ayakura continues to provide the interior illustrations and the original color artwork for the cover and preview illustrations in the first few pages; if you weren't a fan of his artistry before, this novel is unlikely to change your mind.
As with the last two releases, Yen Press offers this one up with the original cover (shown at right) concealed under a slipcover featuring a photo of a live model in similar dress and pose (shown above). The production once again opens with several glossy pages featuring color illustrations of certain scenes and closes with a two-page Afterword by Hasekura, briefs bios for him and Ayakura, and two pages of company advertisements. The production is a clean and effective one, with no errors noted, and its slightly larger size and appealing font make it a comfortable read in a physical sense, too.
With the continuing release of The Twelve Kingdoms novels now seeming unlikely, Spice and Wolf has taken its place as the premiere Japanese novel series being released in the States. Its production values equal or exceed those of any other equivalent release and the strength of its content is second to none. The price-to-page-count ratio is on the high side, but for that readers are getting a quality product.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Lawrence and Holo's interactions, development of setting, successfully makes an interesting plot which heavily involves economics.
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