Andrew Osmond reads the Spice & Wolf books
Underneath the cloak, Holo smiled mischievously. The right corner of her mouth curled up in a smirk, showing a sharp fang. “Want to injure me and see for yourself?”
Lawrence was not entirely disinclined to respond to her provocation, but he decided that if he actually reacted and drew his dagger, things could really get out of hand.
“I’m a man. I could never injure such a beautiful face.”
Hearing him say so, Holo smiled as if receiving a long anticipated gift and drew playfully near to him. A sweet scent swirled vaguely round him, rousing Lawrence’s body. Completely indifferent to his reaction, she sniffed him, then drew slightly back.
Down, Wolfy! At the risk of disappointing readers, that’s about as, er, spicy as these first two Spice and Wolf books get. And to think, an X-rated fantasy about a girl who turns into a wolf goddess could have given whole new meanings to Fifty Shades of Grey…
For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with Spice and Wolf, it’s set in a medieval-style world where Lawrence is a nomadic peddler and Holo a lonely nature goddess, appearing as a beautiful girl with furry ears and a tail. There’s much competitive sparring between the pair – indeed, one of the story’s purposes is to explore the foibles and mindsets of both sexes through their merry wars of words. There’s plenty of “How far will they go?” tension, and we won’t give away the answer here, but don’t expect reams of steamy prose.
Despite the lack of sauciness, the U.S. publishers Yen Press risked fans’ wrath by creating its own dust-jacket art for the first book in the series. It shows a nude girl in shadow flashing a dangerous grin. Frankly, the cover’s not nearly as bad as everyone says, though it sits oddly with the cute-and-cartoony pics in the book itself, taken from the Japanese edition. Like many manga magazines, there are eight colour pages of illustrations at the front of each of the two books, plus half-a-dozen black and white pictures scattered through the text.
The picture designs for Lawrence, Holo and the other players are in line with the anime, but slanted towards the cute. They include “chibi” portraits of Holo on the contents pages, resembling those on the anime’s end titles. It must be said that Holo appears in the altogether in one of the first frontispiece Japanese pictures, so it wasn’t just Yen Press exploiting Holo’s charms! The U.S. editions of the subsequent books keep to the Japanese covers, showing the cute Holo in less confrontational poses.
Written by the male author Isuna Hasekura, the first two books have been adapted very closely by the first anime season of Spice and Wolf, so don’t expect big new takes on the material. Volume 1 is the story-arc adapted in parts 1 to 6 of the anime; volume 2 covers parts 8 to 13. Part 7 of the anime was a little extra character piece that doesn’t appear in the books, released as an OVA after the rest of the series. There was a similar “bridging” episode made for Birdy the Mighty Decode.
Actually, the first book loses a big part of the plot compared to the anime. In the animated version, Lawrence has a female friend called Chloe, an ambitious entrepreneur herself, who’s set up in the first episode and plays an important part later. In the book version, the equivalent character is a man called Yaeri, though calling him a character is questionable, when he barely registers on the page.
There are other clear-cut improvements where the anime finds a better way to tell the story. For example, on their first meeting, Holo shows Lawrence she’s a wolf by suddenly “growing” a huge forepaw from her shoulder, which feels somewhat silly. The anime leaves the transformation to our imaginations, playing on our expectations with scary pagan wolf masks and giant wooden figures. There’s another striking revision at the very end of the season, where a lame romcom gag is made vastly funnier, even cinematic, by substituting a tolling church bell for a nonsensical “at-choo.”
More deeply, there are crucial moments when the books over-comment on Holo’s and Lawrence’s charged relationship, while the anime leaves the viewers to fill out their own scorecards on how they’re doing. Conversely, the books pass up the opportunity to see deeper into Holo’s godly heart, daring to imagine the thoughts of a divinity and contrasting his-and-hers perceptions. As in the anime, nearly everything is shown though Lawrence’s eyes. The characters’ voices, of course, are in line with the anime, though fans who know that version may find the verbal jousting less fun without the actors behind it.
For fans of fantasy world-building, we get no more of an overview of Spice and World’s milieu than we did in the anime. Even the threatening, demon-burning Church looming over Lawrence and Holo is sketched cloudily. At least in the translation, there are mentions of a Pope and the Virgin Mary, and church wine is “holy blood,” but there are also twelve angels who created the world. The history is just as murky, and despite threats of inquisitions and slave ships, there are few gritty historic hardships impinging on the main action.
However, there are some nice incidental observations; for example, Lawrence’s presumption that any female who can afford to look beautiful must have lordly connections, or else be an unaffordable prostitute! The second book is also harder-edged about Lawrence’s moral compass, when he and Holo risk the life of an innocent girl to get Lawrence out of a pickle. As the survivalist Holo puts it, “The death cry of a lamb is indescribable, yet my empty stomach complains constantly. If I must listen to one of them, I’ll lend my ear to the louder of the two.”
As the quote suggests, the translated prose reads well enough, though with some irritations and oddities. Many of the paragraphs are only one or two lines long, which adds momentum while highlighting its stodginess of much of the prose. Only the dialogue is vivacious, and much of that was transferred to the anime anyway. The dialogue is lent a cartoony quality by the numerous comic moments when Holo gorges on meat or drink, with many a “munch” and a “burp!” The speech is better at conveying Holo than awkward interjections such as “She was being almost unbearably dear,” or stock references to her sneers and cheeky grins.
Of course, the books have the same basic virtues picked up in the anime. There’s the novelty of a medieval-style fantasy based round trade conflicts rather than knights in armour, all imbued with the charm of Lawrence and Holo. For fans of the anime who want to revisit the story, the books offer a congenial alternative to just rewatching the show, though it’s well worth comparing how the anime handles particular scenes. And if you just love hanging out with Lawrence and Holo, then the books will let you stay with them for the long haul, long after the anime is over. After all, there are four more books by Hasekura already translated into English after these first two, and ten more waiting in Japan…
Spice and Wolf part two is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.