Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spice & Wolf, Vol. 1 (book) by Isuna Hasekura, illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura

Synopsis:

This book takes place in a time and place very much like Europe in the Middle Ages. Lawrence is a lonely traveling merchant who dreams of making enough money to be able to open his own shop and finally settle down.

His life is complicated by the discovery of a beautiful naked girl sleeping in his cart - a girl who just happens to have wolf ears and a tail. The girl's name is Holo, Holo the Wisewolf, and she has been the wolf goddess of the harvest for generations in one of the villages Lawrence passes through regularly. However, that village no longer needs Holo, and Holo, as lonely as Lawrence, wants nothing more than to travel back to the forests in the north where she was born.

Holo and Lawrence strike up a deal: Lawrence will accompany Holo to the north, as long as Holo helps him profit more than he would have alone. Holo is by no means an inexpensive travel companion (she likes wearing high quality clothes, and she has an obsession with tasty food and drink), but she's as good at bargaining and detecting lies as she claims to be, and she does negotiate more profit for Lawrence than he could have on his own.

Then Lawrence and Holo learn about a particular deal involving depreciating silver currency. If they can figure everything out and make the right deals, they could stand to make an amazing profit - but it eventually becomes clear that, if they're not careful, they might just as easily end up turned over to the Church, where Holo would be seen as a demon-possessed girl and she and Lawrence would be burned as heretics.

Commentary:

This light novel and the ones that come after it inspired the anime, but I saw the anime first. I had actually heard about this book long before I saw the anime, mainly because of the controversy over the cover. The cover image you see in my blog is not the cover the original Japanese version of this book had, and, from what I can remember, it was extremely difficult to get the version of the cover with the original artwork. I remember assuming that the cover re-design was an attempt by Yen Press to market the book to a wider audience. In my opinion, the new cover is hideous. Also, what was point, when the original cover actually matched the illustrations inside the book?

This book is almost exactly like what I remember of the anime, up to the resolution of the story arc involving the silver trenni coins. The primary difference is that a character who was female in the anime is male in the book - I'm assuming he was turned into a she in the hopes of attracting more male otaku.

As is usually the case with light novels, I found myself preferring the anime to the novel the anime was based on. I didn't find all the financial scheming any easier to understand in the novel - in fact, I think more of it went over my head this time than when I was watching the anime. I found the interplay between Lawrence and Holo to be more charming and clever when I could actually watch and hear the two of them. That said, just as their relationship was the strongest part of the anime, it was also the strongest part of this book, and I really enjoyed reading about the two of them getting to know each other and learning how to work and live together.

There were a couple things I thought the book accomplished better than the anime. First, I thought the book created a better, fuller picture of this world. Readers got to learn details about this world that couldn't be easily conveyed in the anime. For instance, in one passage it's mentioned that Holo's long, beautiful hair would cause people to immediately assume she was likely fairly well off, because only nobles could afford to wash long hair in hot water on a regular basis. Details like this couldn't be as easily communicated in the anime.

Second, I thought Lawrence himself was more fully portrayed in the book. Readers got to know more about his thoughts, which gave insights into his life that the anime may have tried to get across but which must have gone over my head. I think I only understood the full extent of Lawrence's loneliness after reading the book - the merchants' story about horses learning to talk, Lawrence actually wondering what his horse would be like if it could talk, Lawrence's thoughts about the shop he'd like to open up, etc.

One scene I thought was particularly effective was one that not only brought up the loneliness of a traveling merchant's life again, but also underscored how similar Holo's loneliness is. Holo had had a nightmare in which she got to the northern forests only to discover that all her wolf friends were gone, reminding Lawrence of tales of traveling merchants who returned to their home towns after 20 years, only to discover that no one there remembered them - or that the towns themselves no longer existed. I don't recall any moment in the anime that was quite as chilling as this one passage.

In addition to giving a better window into his loneliness, Lawrence's thoughts also showed just how much he was analyzing every little thing from a merchant's perspective. Lawrence considers the potential worth of everything he sees and evaluates people in terms of what they can do for him (and against him) in an easy and automatic way that even extends to a stray thought about the value of Holo's tail fur.

Lawrence isn't the only one looking at the world this way - profit and business are vital to every character in this book. Somehow, Hasekura manages not to make this a negative thing. Yes, the characters do sometimes play tricks on each other in the name of profit (one incident, in which Holo negotiates a higher price for a wagonload of furs, comes immediately to mind), but none of it's done in a "businessman crushing his opponent" sort of way. In this world, if someone manages to trick you into paying a higher price than you should have, you accept it as a learning experience and move on. When a big company almost leaves Lawrence and Holo high and dry because they're no longer worth the trouble to help, Lawrence doesn't rail against the company, but instead thinks of a way to turn things around so that it is worth the company's while to help them.

The importance of profit and business is even woven into Lawrence's relationship with Holo. Holo simultaneously wins Lawrence's respect and offends his pride by showing how quickly she can grasp information about markets and currency that took him years to learn. Near the end of the book, during a part where the hero of another book might have shouted something like "don't leave, I love you" to the heroine, Lawrence instead shouts about the cost of the clothing Holo ruined. To Holo, the meaning of his words would be clear - she could leave, if she wished, but as a merchant he would be compelled to follow her to the ends of the earth to get back what she owed him. I'm still not sure whether I can call this romantic, but it certainly fit the characters.

Most of the light novels I've read haven't been very good. I think this one could have made it to my short list of good light novels, if it weren't for two things. One, my continued inability to understand the storyline about the trenni silver coins, and, two, the writing. Like I said in my post about the anime, I have something of a mental block when it comes to economics. I would have thought that it would all be easier to understand in book form, because I'd be able to go back and reread anything that didn't make sense, but I just ended up more confused. I'm still not entirely sure how anyone managed to profit from the scheme.

As far as the writing goes, I don't quite know how to describe it. At times, the style reads a lot like something written 60 years ago (at the moment, I am reading Eloise Jarvis McGraw's Mara, Daughter of the Nile, first published in 1953, and there are aspects of its style that are very similar to this first volume of Spice and Wolf). Also, there are occasionally some very strange and awkward phrases. Here's one I thought was strange enough to include in my notes: "Her whispering voice was itchy" (144). At the time, Lawrence had just had the surprise of getting into bed only to find Holo already there (and naked? I can't remember), and Holo was just about to warn him that they needed to make a quick escape. I'm guessing "itchy" refers either to Lawrence's involuntary excitement at finding Holo in his bed, anticipating a pleasant near future, or to a quality in Holo's voice that relates to what she's about to say. Either way, it's an odd word to use.

Overall, I liked this book enough to want to read the next volume, but it doesn't sway me from my opinion that most light novels aren't very good. In this case, the actual story was fairly good, and I enjoyed Lawrence and Holo, so the main fault lies either in the author's writing style or in the translation. I would recommend the anime over this book, but I don't regret reading the book.

Extras:

Several full-color illustrations at the beginning of the volume, black and white illustrations throughout the volume, and an afterword written by the author (which is little more than a thank you and "yay, I won a writing contest!").

I'm lazy - I basically copied and pasted my read-alikes/watch-alikes list from my post about the Spice and Wolf anime.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede - Spice and Wolf made me think of this book, although it's been so long since I last read this that it's possible the connections I saw may be imagined. I'm pretty sure this book came to mind because of the pairing of characters (a man and a girl, both of whom are clever in their own right), the somewhat historical feel, and the cleverness of the characters. I wrote a post about this one a while back.
  • American Gods (book) by Neil Gaiman - Darker than Spice and Wolf (I wouldn't use the word "sweet" to describe this one), but has a similar theme of old gods who have been forgotten by humankind. The setting is contemporary, and the main character is an ex-convict whose wife has died (pretty much). He ends up on a journey that has him crossing paths with numerous characters who turn out to be gods.
  • Japan, Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics (manga) by Shotaro Ishinomori - If you actually enjoyed all the talk about economics in Spice and Wolf, you may want to try this. It's manga based on an economics textbook (from the early 1980s), and much more interesting than that statement makes it sound.
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - This one has a semi-historical setting, romantic elements, a strong, intelligent heroine, and a fairly happy ending (at least, the first season ends happily - I haven't yet watched the second). The main character is a princess whose family is going through financial hardships. She is paid to become the emperor's consort and hopefully convince him to start doing his job. As the season progresses, the main character becomes the first female government official and must figure out how to do her job while dealing with opposition. 
  • Mara, Daughter of the Nile (book) by Eloise Jarvis McGraw - What the heck, I figured I'd add this one to the list. McGraw's writing style seems similar. Like Spice and Wolf, the book has a strong female main character, romance, and adventure. It's set in ancient Egypt. Mara is a slave whose cleverness has attracted the attention of two groups, both of them dangerous. Circumstances and quick talking result in Mara being something of a double agent, reporting to two different masters. At first, her main concern is getting out of the whole thing with both her life and her freedom, but, as time passes, she starts to fall for the young man who leads the rebel group.

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