The first volume of Spice & Wolf was one of the better light novels I've read. I finally decided to read the second volume. If you've seen the anime: the second half of season 1 covers the events of this volume. It's been long enough since I last saw the show that I'm not entirely sure which details differ, but the general events are the same.
Holo and Lawrence are still traveling together, and, with Holo's help, Lawrence is able to get a really good deal on a wagon-load of armor. Lawrence knows that, at this time of year, armor sells pretty well at their next stop, Ruvinheigen, and the money would bring him one step closer to his dream, settling down and opening a shop.
Then things turn very sour. Lawrence learns that his wagon-load of armor is now worth one tenth what he'd estimated. He has two days to repay his debt to the Remelio Company, which is itself close to bankruptcy because of armor's sudden drop in value. The guild Lawrence is associated with can't lend him money, and neither can other guild members. If he can't repay his debt, he'll be sold into slavery. Holo could transform into a wolf and help him escape the city, but his life as a merchant would be over and he would be on the run forever.
A good chunk of my description could be considered a spoiler, because Lawrence doesn't find out the bad news about the armor until halfway through the volume. That was one of the things I didn't like about this book: the pacing. Although the introduction of Norah, the shepherdess, was necessary, and it was nice to see Holo and Lawrence bickering and flirting, I wish Hasekura could have tightened all that up. The first half of the book was a bit of a slog for me, as I waited for something to actually happen. The second half was much more exciting.
It did not help that the writing/translation (it's hard to be sure which one is the problem) could have used some improvement. Some sentences were a little strange, such as this one, describing Holo's reaction to Lawrence's description of peaches preserved in honey: “Her eyes were moist and blurred with overflowing anticipation” (17). And this, after Lawrence learned the bad news: “Lawrence's hoarse voice was all that tied him to reality” (124). The “him” that sentence referred to was Lawrence, so Lawrence's own voice was tying Lawrence to reality. I understood the general meaning, “Lawrence is deeply upset and in shock,” but it could have been phrased better.
I also noticed that Hasekura had a bad habit of telling readers in the narrative what would have been better communicated via dialogue. For example, there was one bit near the end where it seemed like Lawrence was thinking about ways his group could avoid being taken down by wolves. However, the two paragraphs outlining a possible strategy ended with this: “Lawrence listened to Holo's hasty explanation and saw that Norah moved to do just that [kill one of the wolves]” (224). It wasn't until that point that I realized the two paragraphs of strategy were actually things Holo had been telling Lawrence and Norah. It would have been much clearer if Hasekura had written it as dialogue.
That doesn't mean I hated the book – it just means I'd hesitate to recommend it to someone who wasn't already an anime/manga/light novel fan and willing to put up with less-than-stellar writing. Spice & Wolf is still one of the better series I've come across.
The things I enjoyed about this book: Holo and Lawrence's relationship, the world details and the way they're framed, and the economics stuff. Holo and Lawrence grew a little closer in this volume, and Lawrence actually told Holo that she is special to him. But what I loved even more was Lawrence introducing Holo to his guild master in Ruvinheigen. He warned her that his fellow guild members would probably assume she was his fiancee, so she said she'd be fine with him claiming that they were lovers. Instead, he introduced her as his business partner, and was proud when he described the profit she'd helped him make in the past. Okay, so it doesn't sound very romantic, but this was coming from a guy for whom business is everything. He had pride in her as a partner, and he trusted her as a partner. I loved that.
Speaking of Lawrence and business – his identity as a merchant colored pretty much everything. It was how he viewed the world, and it was even part of his small talk. There was a bit, early on, dealing with the role the Church had in the formation, development, and ongoing existence of one of the towns Lawrence was passing through, and the focus was all on trade, the flow of currency, and taxes. The Church was just one more thing with the potential to affect his business. Lawrence's mindset, and the economics in general, really worked for me in this book. I even got a chuckle out of Lawrence's revenge by way of loan near the end.
All in all, it was an okay book that would have been improved by a shorter first half. The ending was pretty satisfying, aside from the unanswered questions about Norah and Enek's future. She irked me early on in the book, mostly because of Lawrence's reaction to her (he liked how sweet, gentle, and quiet she was compared to Holo, never mind that she'd have bored him to tears in the long run). However, she later proved herself to be an awesome shepherdess, well-partnered with Enek, her dog. I wanted to know if her dream worked out, and what she decided to do with Enek. I wouldn't mind a cameo appearance in a future book.
Eight color pages (five color illustrations), seven black-and-white illustrations, and a short afterword written by the author.
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) and the somewhat historical feel. I've written about this book.
- 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. I've written about the first season of the anime and the first six volumes of the manga.