Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 178 (7/31) -– Spice & Wolf, Vol. 1 by Hasekura, Koume, & Ayakura

This is definitely getting old. I’m still (as I write this) in a hotel down in Maryland, for a conference, without Internet, elevators, or air conditioning. (It only got up into the low 90s today, which is what counts for good news.) Tomorrow the conference ends, and I think I’ll be driving back home in the evening instead of staying over and leaving in the morning, as originally planned. (Who would willingly stay an extra night in a hotel without air conditioning in DC in the summer?)

So I’m in a particularly foul mood tonight, which may alarm some of you when you recall reviews I’ve written on relatively sunny days. (Kick-Ass, anyone? I may have been slightly cruel there; there’s no reason to believe that Kick-Ass readers can’t be successfully reintegrated into society after an intensive regiment of electroconvulsive therapy.) But the book I read today – during downtime in the booth, which (thankfully) is in a facility that still has working AC – isn’t big or definitive enough to be worth an overwhelming response in either direction.

Spice & Wolf began as a series of light novels – they’re just like regular novels, only with fewer calories words – by Isuna Hasekura, but, in the usual Japanese dominate-all-media fashion of successful properties, quickly spread into other media. What I read is the first in a series of manga volumes, written by series creator Hasekura, with art by Keito Koume from character designs by Jyuu Ayakura. (That last detail makes me suspect that there was an anime of some type in between light novel and manga, but I can’t check that – as I noted above, I have no Internet access as I type this.) Spice & Wolf, at least in this incarnation, is a mercantile fantasy that so far isn’t making much use of its fantasy element, preferring to veer strongly in the direction of mercantilism (to the point of wonkiness, actually).

Kraft Lawrence is an itinerant merchant – the kind beloved in fiction of several genres, seen as the “tramp starship captain” or, as here, a guy with a cart, a horse, and a load of stuff he’ll sell in the next village to buy more stuff, ad infinitum – in a vaguely medieval world, who comes to the small farming town of Pasloe during their harvest festival. Their local harvest god – called a “god” throughout, though her current form is definitely female, as proven by the many pages where Koume draws her nude – is Holo the Wisewolf, and he/she has decided that it’s time to move on – the fields are as fecund as they’ll ever be, and her continued presence won’t add anything. So she – I’ll call Holo “she” from here on, to reduce confusion – hops into Lawrence’s load of grain, leading to the inevitable meet-(nude-and-)cute.

There’s an unspecified (but vaguely Catholic and mildly repressive) “Church” in the background of this unnamed world, which would disapprove of Holo if it knew of her, but Lawrence is enough of a man of the world that finding a naked, wolf-tailed and –eared girl in his wagon at night just leads him to quizzically talk to her until he agrees to let her travel with him back to her ancestral home far to the north. In return, Holo (eventually) declares that she will use her age-old wisdom and feminine wiles – not necessarily in those terms, mind you – to make Lawrence’s deals more profitable to him than they would be out of his own efforts.

And that leads to the pulse-pounding mercantilism of the main plot, as Lawrence is recruited into a scheme – he’s told – to profit from the upcoming secret plan for a nearby nation to increase the weight of silver in their silver coins, as part of a moderately complicated currency arbitrage gambit. Holo has the ability to tell if someone is lying, though – not infallibly, and not to tell what is the truth – and notes that Lawrence’s contact, Zheren, is lying about something.

After several long speeches about various mercantile topics – buying cheap and selling dear, currency exchange rates, the attractiveness of several sorts of cargoes – this volume of Spice & Wolf bounces to an end without finishing up the current plot. But that’s OK; no one expects a manga to finish even its introductory story in only two hundred pages.

Holo is a pleasant example of that manga staple, the spunky girl who Is Vastly More That She Seems, even if Lawrence is little more than a dry stick that gives plausible speeches about economics. It’s pretty pedestrian for a book that comes shrinkwrapped with a “mature readers” label – the latter is purely because Holo prances around naked for several pages at a time in most of the chapters here, though it’s entirely non-sexual nudity – and I suspect that most of the readers who are attracted to shrink-wrapped manga will be disappointed to find Spice & Wolf’s full-page explanation of how to profit from changing weights in silver coinage. To an American eye, this series is an unlikely mix of the generic (spunky goddess-girl, traveling trader hero) and the idiosyncratically unique (currency arbitrage, extended negotiation sequences about the scent of apples), but I bet Japan’s large and diverse ecology of manga has built an entire micro-climate of books much like this. It’s just weird enough to be worth reading, even given the familiar elements, and I have to admit that I wonder if it will turn into a deal-of-the-volume series, with Holo and Lawrence bootstrapping their load of pelts into silver coins, and then into fine timber, or into rice cakes, or foreign jewelry, or something even more unlikely, on their way north to the city that Holo doesn’t know ended several centuries ago. Or maybe something else unexpected will happen in the next volume; I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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