Spice and Wolf Vol. 1 Review

spice and wolf ln 1

If this is the cream of the light novel crop, I am fully at ease with never reading another light novel.

Spice and Wolf is a series which follows the adventures of Lawrence the traveling merchant and Holo the Wisewolf as they criss-cross the land and engage in trade in a European-ish medieval setting. In this volume, Lawrence inadvertently picks up Holo as a hitch-hiker when she makes a break from the village she’s watched over the harvest of for centuries and ends up in his wagon. Although initially reluctant and a bit skeptical, Lawrence comes around on having Holo along for the duration, as she demonstrates that a. she’s actually a wolf, b. she’s got the makings of a good merchant herself, and c. she’s really good as sussing out lies. But when the pair make a play for greater fortune, they find themselves swirled into machinations far greater, and deadlier, to themselves.

I’ll be direct – this is not a good book. There’s a decent story in here, sure, but they did a much better job in execution in the anime. This is likely in large part as we’re not subjected to Lawrence’s personal thoughts, which range from genuinely terrible descriptions of breasts (I hope I shall never read the phrase “inorganic material” in a discussion of breasts in literature ever again) to fairly creepy (Lawrence only expresses an interest in Holo sexually/romantically immediately after observing that she seems childish – yuck). Of course, underpinning this particular issue is that the writing as a whole can be charitably described as turgid. This problem at points is so acute that I had to re-read several passages as I genuinely had no idea what was going on in-text after reading through the first time (or second, or third… or fourth).

As this is a work in translation, I must of course address the idea that this may be due to the translator and not the original author, Isuna Hasekura – and the answer is that the original author is probably the problem child here, although I don’t think the translator helped. When I remarked upon how badly written this book is, several people chimed in to say that World End Economica, a visual novel for which Haseukura did the writing, suffered from the same problems prose-wise, and a couple of folks who tried Spice and Wolf in Japanese said they found the diction there distended as well. Additionally, the translator here, Paul Starr, has gone on the record stating that he was trying to stick to Hasekura’s style in his translation. And at this point it all gets potentially sticky as there’s a lot of disagreement and has been a lot of disagreement within the fandom about what a translator’s job is and what constitutes the appropriate way to approach translation. I also have to grant that the segment of fandom that was likely to pick up this LN is the segment that is likeliest to pitch a very loud tantrum if the translation had made the thing more readable. As it was, there sure was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over rendering it ‘Holo’ even though this is the spelling the author designated for romanization. (I don’t want to get too into the matter of translation, as I am at best a dilettante in the area, but for more reading, Frog-kun at Fantastic Memes examines the matter a lot, and with the added bonus of actually being a practitioner of the form. Actually, although it doesn’t directly relate to Spice and Wolf, I in particular would recommend checking out his post How would a black woman speak in anime?: A case study of Little Women, which is really interesting.)

Going back to my opening line – will I really never touch a light novel again? No; I probably will at some point touch a light novel again, especially if a miracle occurs and we get the Maria-sama ga Miteru LNs (this is never going to happen!). But for all that Spice and Wolf is often held up as an argument that the entire medium isn’t poorly-written garbage, it does a very bad job in that role. I suspect that it’s often cited as such as it’s being about adults and it’s interest in economics aren’t as obviously light novel-y, but of the light novels I’ve read, several of the ones which much more clearly adhered to the standard tropes up-front were better than this even as they lolled in high school wish-fulfillment alleys. Book Girl features a sixteen year old boy who is weary from his unexpected fame as an author and desperately wants to hide and recover from this ~trauma~, but it’s got much better writing. Kieli features a sixteen year old girl who can see ghosts and whose life changes when a ~mysterious~ boy comes into her life, but it likewise has better writing. (On the other hand, Clamp School Paranormal Investigators is about a bunch of middle and high school students at a fancy-fancy high school who have supernatural powers, and it’s dreadfully, tragically dull.) Pursuing things which are typically left alone by light novels isn’t enough to elevate something, but good writing can make a potentially standard story into something worth paying attention to.

Although I did remind myself several times going in that light novels tend to be written at a more simplistic level than other books, I was nevertheless pretty disappointed in this volume. Spice and Wolf is a good anime, and I did expect that to be a reflection of it’s source material, but it’s clear that the production crew there were more adept at executing the ideas of this story than the original author was.

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8 Responses to Spice and Wolf Vol. 1 Review

  1. Guy says:

    If this is the cream of the light novel crop, I am fully at ease with never reading another light novel.

    Sadly, this is my take-away as well. After reading Mahouka LNs 1-12, I said, it’d only be fair for me to read what’s supposed to be “The Good LNs,” which even have professional translations, right? So I went and read Spice and Wolf volumes 1-5, and just didn’t have fun. Then I picked up a John Scalzi book, not one of his best, even, and the contrast was so large that I haven’t really been able to bring myself to read up LNs since.

    It’s just… not well-written. There’s no getting around that.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      What funny timing! I’m halfway through reading your post “Light Novels Are Poorly Written and Adapting Them Shows That”… S&W seems to be an exception, though, but as I alluded to above, it ducks that issue by not mooring us strictly inside of Lawrence’s head.

      I do think there are some perfectly decent light novels. S&W, however, absolutely isn’t one of them. I also think that the medium isn’t one in which particularly good writing is rewarded, given audience expectations, so the decent ones are the exceptions.

      • Guy says:

        Yeah… the comments on that piece, alongside some recent Twitter discussions do raise the question whether the translations are now aimed squarely at fans because the fans don’t care if it’s well-written – they’ve grown to accept even semi machine translations, and it’s certainly less effort and doesn’t actually require a translator who’s also a good author to produce those.

        Who knows, I might still give Zero Maria a try, but the more people hype it up, the more of a devastating blow it’d be when I think it’s crap too :’)

        I still read the SAO LNs without shame, but that’s because I care for the characters. So it goes.

        • A Day Without Me says:

          I’m trying to think of how to phrase my response… I think that the people buying the official translations of LNs in English skew on the young side, as this is true of how the demographics of anime fans as a whole skew, and I think this in turn influences the translations in two ways. Firstly, newer anime/manga fans do tend to grip more tightly at those things we call “weebish”, and this means they take a “purist” approach to translation that pays microscopic attention to things like what spellings are used (Holo vs. Horo, for instance) and whether honorifics are retained, not something which is typically conducive to a good translation. Secondly, because they’re on the younger side, they tend to be operating at a lower reading level (this isn’t to snub them – the fact is that one’s reading level tends to improve over time, so your average fourteen year old is going to be reading at a lower level than your average twenty-five year old or forty-five year old). I’m reminded of the bitter disappointment I used to feel upon re-visiting particular fanfics I adored as a teenager, as they more often than not simply didn’t hold up.

          But! In addition to that… I think a lot of anime fans don’t read much prose literature regardless of their age. And, if you’re not reading very often, then the bad writing in LNs isn’t going to necessarily be a turn off.

  2. nessasky says:

    Yeah, I agree. Thankfully I watched the anime after reading this, but it was quite a slog to get through this book, even knowing that light novels can be kinda… eh.

    I’m currently reading Ryougo Narita’s light novels and enjoying them, so I’ll leave them as a tentative recommendation.🙂

  3. e says:

    S&W was the author’s first work, and written for a competition. The writing does improve as the series goes on and the author is given some time to figure it out, but alas it was never light-novel material to begin with, so you can see the seams in the writing where the lead character is made more light-novel-ish, and some situations are contrived to make them more light-novel-ey. The middle of the series feels like the author was more or less forced to make concessions, and then had to spend several volumes (including side story volumes!) trying to figure out how to salvage the mess. But you’re right – there is a very good story in there, if only the author had been given the chance to truly tell it properly instead of making a light novel.

  4. GB says:

    I haven’t read the light novels for this, so there’s little for me to argue about in that respect.

    But as someone who is over the age of thirty and has admittedly read less literature than tons of non-fiction books about relatively down-to-earth topics ranging from historical to social or political subjects, it seems I generally tend to appreciate good or complex stories with a certain amount of substance over “well written” ones with more stylistic flavor about shallower affairs. In other words, I prefer reading about interesting topics even in simple terms to being impressed by someone’s command of language.

    Which is why it’s rather likely that I could find the Spice and Wolf light novels to be decently non-offensive, as long as the core story, character interactions and associated themes are superior to yet another in the long line of magical high school harem fantasies. Those sorts of things bore the hell out of me because of their vapid subject matter and associated conventions, not due to the formal flaws or limitations of the juvenile prose involved.

  5. fgfdfh says:

    As someone who has read plenty of LN, both the official and fan translated ones, I agree with all of the comment above. And not just LN, the same thing is true with Visual Novels. Despite what the fanbase told you, most of them are poorly written. Fanboys often blamed those on the poor
    translators, but the problems with those mediums are always more than just poor prose. The biggest one I have is their ridicluous and completely unjustified length.

    I suspect VN and LN weakness have a lot to do with the geek culture. Not just anime fans, Star Wars or Star Trek fans also have an unhealthy interest in details, consistency and plot holes. They want a clear, coherent, and consistent story, even if it means murdering pacing and emotional impact. No personal interpretation is allowed. The gigantic amount of discussions about “canon” and watch order prove that.

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