I’ve already established that I love Spice and Wolf. I don’t tend toward fanboy-ness, but if I did it’s the series I would be obsessed with. It so happens that Spice and Wolf is based on a series of light novels, which it also so happens are being translated into English. Nice.
Now, I’m not a big reader. Or rather, I’m not a big novel reader—I read plenty, just not in long, uninterrupted chunks of fiction. So it’s saying something right off that I liked the series enough to actually buy, then sit down and read the book once I got my hands on it. Says more that I finished it almost immediately because I couldn’t put it down. (It is, admittedly, relatively short—hence the “light” in “light novel,” I assume.)
The verdict: Surprisingly good. Further, it’s similar enough to the anime adaptation to be entirely familiar, while adding enough that it feels like you get something extra out of it.
Now, unlike anime or manga, a translation of a novel relies heavily on the quality of the writing in the translation. There’s also a whole lot more room for creative liberty that will go unnoticed by readers—you can tell exactly the same story using wildly different words, to drastically different effect. It made me a little nervous that Spice and Wolf doesn’t credit the translator on the cover, but that was unwarranted.
The writing is quite nice, with a smooth, casual flow that nonetheless feels noticeably “old fashioned,” in keeping with the roughly Renaissance-era fantasy setting. Indeed, the prose does a notably good job of feeling not-modern without reading like it’s trying too hard or being hard to understand. It also doesn’t particularly feel like a translation from Japanese, which in this case (on account of the European-esque setting) is a definite plus; Japanese prose translated into English usually has a distinct (not negative, just noticeable) sort of structure, which Spice and Wolf has little evidence of.
There are only a handful of typos I noticed, so there’s only one real complaint I have about the translation. Or, I should say, probably have, based on the dialogue in the anime, as I haven’t gotten a look at the original Japanese yet. In the anime, the dialogue generally sounds like standard, straightforward Japanese, with the exception of Holo, who speaks in a significantly more archaic, quite colorful dialect. The novel does give a bit of the flavor of this, but since all the characters sound somewhat old-fashioned there isn’t much room to make her sound different without going full-on Shakespearean (though her use of nushi (ぬし) for “you” pretty closely translates to “thou”).
Admittedly, neither the anime nor manga translations do much to differentiate her manner of speech from everyone else’s, either. There’s also the disappointment that her unique use of the word “watchi” (わっち) for “I” isn’t indicated in any way, but since I can’t think of any way to do that in English given our single available pronoun I suppose I’ll have to let that slide.
I really like that I felt like I was getting something unique but complementary out of both the novel and anime adaptation. Normally when comparing a book to an adaptation of it, you have one of three situations:
- The adaptation is functionally identical, so it just feels redundant.
- The adaptation cuts a bunch of stuff out, so it feels abbreviated or shallow in comparison.
- The adaptation makes substantive changes so they seem like different stories, and you need to pick which you prefer as the “real” one (usually whichever you saw first).
Spice and Wolf is none of the above. The first half of the first season of the anime exactly mirrors the novel, almost scene for scene, and cuts nothing at all (in fact, it ads a little at the beginning). But, where the anime has the strength of its art and the smooth, well-acted dialogue to offer, the book lets us listen into Lawrence’s thoughts as he works things out in his head. (And, since most of the story is about verbal sparring, there’s quite a bit of working-out to do.)
This means that reading the book lets you hear explicitly what the anime implies through facial expressions and tone of voice. Both equally legitimate, both enjoyable in different ways, and either one complements the other. Similarly, the anime fleshes out the world through the realistic images of cities, buildings, and people, while the book has bits of trivia and background information about culture, history, and politics added. Both, again, complementary to each other.
The one thing the book has over the anime are the descriptions of various trade schemes and economic systems, which seem to be easier to understand. It could be because I’d already heard it once, but I think it has more to do with the fact that you can easily slow down and read carefully when things get complicated, where in the anime it’s at full conversation speed and if you get lost you probably aren’t going to go back and watch the explanation a second time. The mentions several times of how much trouble Lawrence had grasping these concepts originally also makes you feel better if you just don’t get it (not to mention emphasizes how smart Holo is, one of her many charms as a character).
And the one thing the anime has over the book is the only significant plot adjustment, which gives you a slightly better emotional hook into the situation and a more visceral explanation of the lonely life of a traveling merchant, without exposition. In the book, Lawrence never visits the town with the festival to Holo at all, as they don’t allow outsiders during it, and the aspiring merchant from the town, who is only mentioned rather than introduced at the beginning, is male. Switching him to a her in the anime, and having Lawrence visit the town and introduce her as a potential romantic interest, gives you a much better emotional hook later in the story arc and a better feel for the disrespect of Holo by her nominal worshippers. This also increases the impact of the dramatic climax significantly.
There is one other difference that I generally liked. The anime, so far as I remember, never explicitly mentioned how old Holo looks, while the book puts her physical body at around 15, mentioned more than once. While her wit and wisdom is, of course, intended as a contrast with her youthful appearance, by never mentioning her age in the anime (and the fact that she doesn’t look memorably young) it bypasses any of the potential creepy vibe you can get from series with characters hundreds of years old who just happen to look prepubescent. (Kanokon and Dance in the Vampire Bund, I’m looking at you.) Actually, in the handful of illustrations in the novel, the character designs are recognizable but a little young-looking all around, Lawrence included; the outro of the anime used the same style, while the show itself goes with a more realistic look, a wise decision if you ask me.
The bottom line is Spice and Wolf is a pleasant, easy book to read, one I expect would be enjoyable even if you hadn’t seen the anime, but is a nice companion piece if you have. I recommend it and am anxiously awaiting the second book, which I immediately pre-ordered but appears to be delayed in getting to the store.
On that note, one last comment about the presentation of the book: What the heck were they thinking with the cover? See, the dust jacket, which appears to be a sort of “early bird” bonus if you buy it while supplies last, features the same beguilingly innocent-looking picture of Holo that the Japanese edition used. Under the jacket, however, the softcover art—featuring the shadowy photo of a girl below—looks weirdly dark and, frankly, like cheap clip-art.
Given that the art inside is anime-style anyway and the “real” jacket is better-looking and already extant, I have no idea why you’d intentionally pay money to have someone design a morbid-looking photo cover. I’d say maybe they were looking to pick up a few clueless Twilight fans browsing at Borders or something, although I expect they’d be hugely disappointed when they realized the story was a playful mix of romance and economics. Maybe they just thought a naked girl would sell better. Again, I sense disappointment.