In the first half of this season, a rift begins to grow between Holo and Lawrence. Then Holo learns that Lawrence has been keeping painful information from her, information relating to their journey to her home in the north. This seems to be the last straw for Holo, who begins staying with a young merchant who is "manly" in ways that Lawrence is not: he puts Holo on a pedestal and challenges Lawrence in order to save her (he believes that Holo was forced to stay with Lawrence due to debts she had accrued).
Although it feels like Lawrence has lost Holo, he's not willing to give up without a fight. Lawrence challenges the young merchant to a merchants' duel involving fool's gold. Fool's gold has recently become very sought-after. If the price of fool's gold continues to stay high, the young merchant wins. If the price plummets, Lawrence wins. Even if the young merchant wins, there is no guarantee Holo will really want to stay with him and marry him, but the young merchant has no doubt about their love for each other. It looks unlikely that the merchant could possibly lose, but if Lawrence can get enough money at just the right time, he might stand a chance.
In the second half of the season, Holo and Lawrence stop at a town in order to try to find out more information about the location of her home. One of the town's primary commodities is fur, but for some reason no one is allowed to sell fur at the moment - fur merchants are camping out right outside of town. Lawrence and Holo learn a bit more about what's going on and meet a female merchant who has a plan that could earn them all a nice profit. Lawrence finally has a chance at the shop he's always wanted, but it's a chance that only comes at great risk. The female merchant appears to be hiding something. Not only that, but the merchant's plan hinges upon selling Holo. In theory, Lawrence should be able to buy her back, but that's only if everything goes according to plan.
I liked the first half of this season so much that I found myself thinking that this season was actually better than the first. As far as the economics went, I could (sort of) follow what was going on, and it was so much fun watching Lawrence scramble in a situation where, technically, there wasn't much risk to him as a merchant but a lot of risk to him as a man.
Then came the second half of the season. It's been a while since I watched this, and I probably delayed writing the post for too long, but I do think my fuzzy memories of the second half of the season are at least in part due to it not being as interesting as the first half.
Although there were quite a few flashbacks to events in the first season, there weren't quite enough of them to be annoying, and some were worked into the second season's story fairly nicely. I enjoyed watching the evidence that Holo and Lawrence's relationship had actually progressed since the first season - the two of them still had the same charm together that they had in the first season, but Lawrence wasn't quite as easy to fluster and there was enough tension between tehm, due to Holo's guilt about how things went near the end of the previous season and Lawrence's feelings about the information he knows about Holo's hometown, to keep things from getting stale.
A lot of the things I wrote about the first season are still true for the second season. Holo and Lawrence are still an incredibly fun and cute couple. Holo still keeps Lawrence on his toes (with some of the same techniques she used in the first season, which was both annoying and kind of fun to watch), and the two of them still act primarily as equals and partners. I had a slightly easier time following the show's economics aspects during the first half of the second season. I could certainly understand supply and demand, especially after spending the past month actively trying to collect out-of-print manga volumes missing from my personal collection, although I didn't have as good of a grasp of the details of Lawrence's contract and merchants' duel. As with the first season, even when I didn't always understand what was going on with the economic aspects, I kept watching because I enjoyed the characters.
The first half of the season has several interesting minor characters. One is a lady alchemist with a secret and knowledge of stories about Holo's homeland. Another is Lawrence's merchant friend, who has what Lawrence is still working towards - a shop in a decent town, a wife, and a life with real connections to other people. I loved how Lawerence's friend commented that Lawrence is starting to become more like someone who could set down roots and live in a town - instead of viewing everyone in terms of what they can do for his business, Lawrence is starting to view some people as actual friends.
Although, again, I didn't think the second half of the season was as strong as the first half, it still had several interesting characters. One of my favorites was a lady merchant who disguised herself as a man. Her painful and hard history made her a more complex character than the boy merchant who tried to steal Holo way from Lawrence in the first half of the season. Her male disguise did introduce a note of inconsistency to the series, though, since Lawrence knew another female merchant in the first season who experienced no trouble as a woman - if the series had more closely followed the books and kept that merchant in the first season male, I probably wouldn't have given the second season's lady merchant's secret a second thought. It at least helped that, considering her past, she had very little reason to trust men and knew very well the kind of power men could wield over women. Pretending to be a man helped her even out the power imbalance.
One of the things that started to bug me about this season was that, even though the armor debacle from the first season must have hit Lawrence pretty hard, financially, there were few signs in this season that he was actively trying to earn money. In the first season, when Lawrence and Holo traveled, they were traveling to sell goods at one place and collect more goods to sell at their next stop. In the second season, most of the things Lawrence does aren't connected to attempts to make profit. The fool's gold storyline is more about winning Holo back than making a profit, and Holo and Lawrence arrive at the fur-trading town not to sell or buy anything, but rather to hear more stories about Holo's homeland and possibly narrow down its location.
At one point in the second season, I'm pretty sure Lawrence says that he has enough money that he could now open up a shop if he wanted to - where did that money come from? As far as I could tell, he and Holo were spending money without making any attempts to replace their expenditures with actual profit. With the way the season ends, it's hard to imagine how Lawrence and Holo will survive - does Lawrence have any money left? I at least wanted some assurance that they would somehow get back on their feet and be ok.
Overall, I loved the first half of this season, enough so that I'd want to own this season just for that part of it. The second half of the season, while not bad, did not appeal to me nearly as much.
For those who are hoping that the ending of the second season will bring some sort of resolution to any of the various open storylines, such as Holo and Lawrence's sort-of romance, Holo's quest to find her home and learn all the details about what happened to it, and Lawrence's desire to open his own shop and put down roots...well, you can stop hoping. Lawrence and Holo's relationship has definitely progressed, but I'm still not sure if they can actually be called a couple by the end of the second season. Lawrence still doesn't have a shop and may not even really want one any more, at least not until Holo has found her home and figured out what she wants to do next. Lawrence hears a story about what happened to Holo's home, but it's still just a story by the end of the season - they haven't yet found Holo's home, and therefore haven't yet found the being that supposedly destroyed it.
The first season aired back in 2008. The second season aired in 2009. I suppose it's still possible that there could be a third season, and there were certainly enough loose ends left over, but I don't think I'm going to hold my breath. Both seasons of Spice & Wolf are quite good, as long as you don't start watching with the expectation that everything is going to get resolved.
This is basically a cut-and-paste of the entire list of watch-alikes and read-alikes from my post about the first season of Spice & Wolf - amazingly enough, all the suggestions I made for that season still work for this one.
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede - The Spice and Wolf series 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 the Spice and Wolf series (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 II, 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.
- Princess Mononoke (anime movie) - If you loved the idea of huge animal gods in semi-historical setting, you may like this movie. This movie has a strong environmental theme and doesn't focus on action so much as contain action. It's lovely and sometimes sad and, unlike some of Miyazaki's other films, not for small children. I loved all the various forest gods in this movie.
- Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - A modern day girl is transported to feudal Japan, where she must collect and purify the broken pieces of the Shikon Jewel. One of her companions is a half-dog-demon, Inuyasha. The romance and action is this series is more prominent, but it might still be good for those looking for something with fantasy elements and a fairly strong heroine.
- Mushi-Shi (anime TV series) - This series (which I've still only seen a little of) is based on a manga series, which I haven't read, so I don't know how closely it's based on the manga. The anime is lovely, and, like some of Spice and Wolf II, fairly slow-paced. In this case, there is only one main character, a somewhat mysterious scholar who investigates beings called Mushi, which are outside of the awareness of most humans.
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (anime TV series) - This is based on a light novel series (technically, it's based on the first book of the light novel series). A spear-wielding warrior woman is forced into protecting a young prince who carries inside him a being that it is believed will cause a terrible drought. During the time the two live together, they become something like a family. As pleasant and almost ordinary as their lives become, they eventually have to deal with the problems that brought them together in the first place. Although this series has action, the real focus is on daily life and character interaction, so, like some of Spice and Wolf II, it is fairly slow-paced. If you find it to be a little too slow at first, give it some time to grow on you - this is one of those that I didn't start to love until the 10th episode, and I didn't truly enjoy the whole thing until I watched it a second time.
- Wolf's Rain (anime TV series) - If what you really enjoyed about Spice and Wolf II was the "wolf in human form" aspect, you may want to try this. It's set in some near future (possibly even in a parallel universe?) in which wolves are believed to be extinct. However, they still exist, but, by some sort of trick, they are usually perceived as being humans. A group of wolves get together, form an uneasy kind of pack, and go on a journey with a mysterious girl whose scent is the same as the one that one of the wolves believes will lead them all to paradise. I have never finished the show, because I could't quite bring myself to view the sad ending I heard it had and could see coming from a mile away, but it's a lovely, slow-paced show with great (and sometimes tragic) character interaction. A good chunk of the cast may appear to be humans, but, like Holo, they are definitely wolves - they understand less about humans than Holo does.
- The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - This one has a similar feel. It also 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.