For centuries Holo the Wisewolf has protected the village of Pasloe, as god of the harvest she has watched over the fields of wheat, ensuring that the village has had many bountiful years and few poor. But man is forgetful and though the citizens of Pasloe still hold a festival in Holo’s honor at the conclusion of every harvest, few, if any, believe that she exists. Tied forever to the land by this tradition, what is an abandoned goddess to do?
This is part 1 of a 3 part series review for Spice & Wolf.
Winter is coming and Kraft Lawrence, a traveling merchant, is passing through Pasloe on his way to sell furs he acquired in the mountains. As Lawrence watches the last of the wheat harvested from the fields in preparation for the town’s festival, an unexpected stowaway finds refuge in the sheaf of wheat lying in his wagon bed. Discovering Holo’s presence that evening, Lawrence is persuaded to escort her back to her home of Yoitsu in the far North. In return, Holo will use her wisdom and experience to better Lawrence’s fortune as a merchant along the way. How could he possibly pass that up?
Everyone, seriously. More specifically, those that enjoy a well-written, entertaining and tense though slow-paced, romance between two fantastic leads and anyone that understands what it means to be lonely will find in this series something that resonates.
The relationship between Lawrence and Holo is the core of this entire series, as the majority of our time is spent with just these two characters, and the series benefits greatly because of it. The single strongest aspect of these volumes is the conversations and interactions of our two leads, and Isuna Hasekura’s writing ability really shines through at these points as even many-page explanations of economics are both engaging and enjoyable. Though Lawrence and Holo’s relationship starts as one of convenience the buds of deeper companionship and romance are present from the beginning and you are duly rewarded for your time by seeing a great relationship unfold through all of its ups and downs.
One of the reasons that so much time is focused on just our titular pair is that through the first five volumes there are no other recurring characters. Each volume takes place in a different town as Lawrence and Holo make their way further and further North, so we are forced to bid farewell to the other characters we meet along the way. However this is not a detriment, as the focus of the series stays with our traveling companions. What other characters we do get to so briefly interact with are memorable and nuanced, from the Shepherdess Norah to the alchemist Diana to the merchant Eve, and each is given their time to shine and add greater depth to a fascinating world.
That world in which we find ourselves is reminiscent of Europe during the late middle ages with just a hint of fantasy and magic. Of course Holo is fantastical in her own right, as she is a giant and ancient wolf in the body of a young women, but we come to know quickly that she is something truly rare. Most of the world knows the old legends of great animal spirits, but with the success of the Church there are few that still believe and by the time we reach the end of volume five we have only met one other like Holo, though we know there were once many more. This world acts as the perfect background for the journey we watch unfold, where politics, economics and religion act as constant threats and obstacles to the well being of our leads.
Each of the first five volumes of Spice & Wolf are centered around a specific business deal or problem that Lawrence and Holo become involved with, whether voluntarily or not. It is through these crises that their relationship and mutual trust is allowed to grow. Lawrence has the knowledge and experience of many years of traveling the road as a merchant, but it is Holo’s wisdom that allows him to be able to take full advantage of it. These situations are so well executed that you feel more anxiety and worry for something like Lawrence watching market fluctuations than the occasional situation where their lives are in danger, though those two things are not always mutually exclusive.
As I mentioned before, the dialogue between Lawrence and Holo is the highlight of each volume and the author made a great decision to have the story told exclusively from Lawrence’s perspective. All we know is what he thinks, says and hears, and we only see with his eyes. This keeps Holo ever-mysterious and adds an edge to their conversations as we are never presented with any straight answers from her, much like Lawrence himself.
There are very few things that I found wrong in these volumes, being longer would be nice, but as I feel obligated to at least put something in this section I give you the following nitpick. Though the overall translation was a great one, there are a few times in each volume were it seems the translator came upon an idiom or idiomatic phrase that did not have a direct English equivalent. This meant that he was required to choose one that carried a similar, but not the same, meaning to the original (again, this is a very small problem), but it still affected the flow of the conversation at a handful of moments and I could not help but notice. I do still want to give props to Paul Starr for an otherwise stellar translation.
At the heart of this story is a tale of two very lonely people, for one it is the trial that comes with the profession he pursues, and for the other it is her greatest fear, each seeks to fill this void with the companionship of the other, but nothing lasts forever...
Spice & Wolf can now be counted as one of my favorite series in fiction and Volumes 1-5 provide an excellent beginning. It may be a long journey, but it is one worth taking.
Spice & Wolf Vol. 1-5 were published by Yen Press between December 15th, 2009 and December 13th, 2011. Authored by Isuna Hasekura and illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura, the series is 17 volumes in length and was published in Japan by ASCII Media Works under their Dengeki Bunko imprint. An anime adaptation of Spice & Wolf aired two seasons in 2008 and 2009, which correspond to volumes 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. Spice & Wolf Vol. 15: The Coin of the Sun I is scheduled for release in English on August 25, 2015.
I will link the rest of my Spice & Wolf reviews as they are posted:
Spice & Wolf Vol. 14 - Light Novel Review
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