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.