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Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 by Isuna Hasekura, trans. Paul Starr

The life of a traveling merchant is a lonely one, a fact with which Kraft Lawrence is well acquainted. Wandering from town to town with just his horse, cart, and whatever wares have come his way, the peddler has pretty well settled into his routine-that is, until the night Lawrence finds a wolf goddess asleep in his cart. Taking the form of a fetching girl with wolf ears and a tail, Holo has wearied of tending to harvests in the countryside and strikes up a bargain with the merchant to lend him the cunning of ‘Holo the Wisewolf’ to increase his profits in exchange for taking her along on his travels. What kind of businessman could turn down such an offer? Lawrence soon learns, though, that having an ancient goddess as a traveling companion can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Will this wolf girl turn out to be too wild to tame?
As with Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, this was one of Jeannette Ng’s light novel recommendations; a high mediaeval fantasy about economics? Right up my street, surely?

Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 starts off promisingly enough, with the tribulations of Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant, without fixed abode, longing for the possibility of belonging somewhere. We meet him plying his tricks to get information, and see the way that knowledge is power, before we ever really get into the meat of the story; Lawrence is our viewpoint character, and Hasekura introduces him to us early, in all his flawed and stereotypical, simplistic ‘glory’. Holo is similarly unsubtle a character; Spice & Wolf treats her at times as a completely naive person with no knowledge of society, despite clear interactions with it, and at others as deeply knowledgeable about modern (that is, mediaeval) systems of economics.

This uneven characterisation for both is frustrating, and not helped by the constant undercurrent of romantic tension that Hasekura tries to create; Spice & Wolf wants to make Holo and Lawrence seem an obvious couple, but despite the text itself repeatedly suggesting mutual feelings, there doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between them, only a kind of dull, muted thing that could at a glance be seen as such. Hasekura’s writing of people all tends towards that, in this volume; no one really has a personality, they are pieces on the board to be moved around to fit the plot.

The setting does little to allay this problem. Spice & Wolf is set in a stereotypical high-mediaeval pseudo-Mitteleuropa, dominated by a monotheistic Church intent on stamping out paganism and killing demons and the possessed. It’s a collection of microstates and trading companies and free cities, whose interdependence and interconnections are assumed but not clear; we seem to jump from mediaeval feudalism in one moment to a guild structure in the next, from kingdoms and dukedoms to city-states. Hasekura’s care and attention to aspects of the worldbuilding is patchy, at best; indeed, it often feels like the world of Spice & Wolf exists to allow Hasekura to explain economic principles, rather than for those economic principles to actually make sense.

The plot of Spice & Wolf is a quiet, small thing, at first; what starts as a minor deal to get in on the ground in a bit of currency speculation quickly spirals out of control into a matter of rival merchant consortia kidnapping and counter-kidnapping. Hasekura is assured in his action sequences, with fast-paced movement and some really heart-pounding moments, but these are few and far between. What advances the plot far more are economic discussions or negotiations between merchants. While Hasekura makes some of these negotiations fascinating through showing as much what’s going on behind the spoken words as what’s actually said, on the whole, they can drag a bit. This is especially true when Spice & Wolf devolves into Lawrence simply explaining to Holo exactly what currency speculation is, or how a commodity currency works, or what devaluation of a currency means; they feel rather stilted and intrusive on the plot.

In the end, Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 is an interesting attempt at writing an economics-based epic fantasy, but Hasekura can’t quite make it work.

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