I first discovered this series as an anime. So when I saw there was a novelization, I had doubts. I was expecting the American experience of a ghostwriter quickly writing a book based on a hit movie, the goal being to get the book out to press fast with grammar and content being secondary. Nothing could be farther from the truth here. This is an award-winning book that then was turned into an anime and manga. What a pleasant surprise.
In a Feudal land, Lawrence, a traveling merchant, spends his days wandering from town to hamlet to tiny village bartering and selling goods from one region to another and back again. He is young, but experienced, and dreams of saving enough money to open a shop in town.
Hasekura immediately sets the stage for a world where Christianity is on the rise and the old gods and old ways are being pushed out. There is always an undercurrent of tension as Lawrence has to quickly evaluate the mood in a given town and work to blend in. As a merchant, it is the difference between a good sale and getting driven out of town.
As the story opens, Lawrence is coming to Pasloe. It is harvest time, and the villagers are still enacting the harvest ritual. “The wolf was the harvest god, and according to legend, it resided in the last stalk of wheat to be reaped. Whoever cut that stalk down would be possessed by the wolf, it was said. The god of the bountiful harvest, once cornered, would try to escape. Capture it, and it would remain for another year.” Since the festival is just beginning, and feeling the villagers will be less inclined to trade than celebrate, Lawrence conducts his business quickly, takes his wheat, and leaves. How surprised he is later to discover a beautiful naked girl in his cart! She has wolf ears and a wolf’s tale and claims to be Holo. Holo is the spirit of the wolf who lives in the wheat and helps it grow. But she is tired of that life. The villagers of Pasloe have forgotten how to be thankful and she misses her home in the North. Lawrence is inclined to believe her for — besides having a wolf’s ears and tail — she transforms one arm into a wolf’s great fore paw and back. He agrees to let her travel with him. As they travel, they learn about each other.
I had no trouble understanding Lawrence’s conflict between greed (wanting Holo’s help with trade), and attraction (for Holo is beautiful), and desire for friendship (for a trader’s life is lonely). Holo is a little harder to understand. She is very playful and teases incessantly, but is also easily offended. She enjoys matching wits with Lawrence, generally getting the best of him. Her moods change with lightening speed. But she really is “The Wisewolf” quickly understanding a situation and seeing the best course of action. Hasekura writes her very cleverly indeed.
Hasekura’s writing flows. He has invented a wonderfully detailed world, but unveils it slowly so you are not immediately inundated with new terminology to remember. Because the main character is a merchant, there is a lot of discussion about free market economies and the ways money and currency is valued. Hasekura makes it interesting. But at its heart is the relationship between Holo and Lawrence, two lonely yet cautious people inching towards friendship.
Recommended for 12 and up.
Spice and Wolf novel series, vol. 1
by Isuna Hasekura
Art by Ju Ayakura
Yen Press, 2009
Publisher Age Rating: (Ages 12 and up)