After their trials, tribulations and life-threatening scrapes over previous volumes, you can't really blame travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence and his unlikely wolf deity companion Holo for hoping for an easy life on the latest instalment of their travels - with the search for Holo's hometown at the forefront of their agenda over trading and profit it seems as if our duo are well-positioned to enjoy just such a simple leg of their journey too.
As soon as they reach the gates of their latest destination however there's cause of concern, with merchants camped outside of the town while those looking to set foot within its walls are search and effectively "tagged" as outsiders. Even with his curiosity suitably piqued by this state of affairs, Lawrence seems determined to focus on his task at hand, ensuring that much of the first half of this fifth volume of Spice and Wolf is a relatively sedate and simple affair that prefers to focus on the easy yet teasing relationship between its two main players rather than any other major economic strife or the like.
Of course, Lawrence isn't the kind of merchant to ignore the possibility of profit forever, and while his search for clues as to Horo's past and homeland bring him some information about the situation currently enveloping the town of Lenos, it's another resident at the Inn within which our duo are staying who lays some decidedly tantalising cards on the table - albeit cards that require some incredibly high risk betting before they can be dealt.
While previous volumes of Spice and Wolf have at least lent equal weight to the overall story of a given instalment when set against any character building and development, the mercantile plot of this fifth novel feels added in almost as an afterthought in a story that is ostensibly about exploring the relationship between Holo and Lawrence, where it stands and in what direction it might develop. Thankfully, despite being a slightly simplistic concept compared to some of the more grandiose plans and plots utilised by previous novels, it works reasonably well as a vehicle to bring things to a head for both of the main characters as they find themselves at something of a crossroads regarding their future paths, but without completely abandoning some of the smart economic twists and turns that have become a trademark of the franchise.
If the story itself doesn't quite set the pulse racing or have you on the edge of your seat as previous volumes have done at times, this is negated simply by the fact that the book's main characters are as charming and engaging as ever - watching Lawrence and Holo chat, tease and flirt for page after page runs the risk of becoming tiresome but manages to never to do so thanks to writing that is not far short of alchemical as it turns the most basic of discussions into something rich and unceasingly enjoyable throughout. This makes for a novel tinged with sadness, passion and ultimately determination that draws you close to its characters and staunchly refuses to let you go until you've turned the final page.
With such a heavy reliance on characters, it does have to be mentioned that trying to jump in to the series at this late stage simply won't work - without the steady build up to where Holo and Lawrence's tale currently resides, you'll either be lost or disappointed (or possibly both), and much of the plot is completely reliant on at least the previous volumes. If you're keen to get into the Spice and Wolf series, its back to volume one you go.
Ultimately, this latest volume of Spice and Wolf leaves us with some interesting questions as to where the series deigns to progress next - is this instalment a sign of shifting towards a more character-focused story, or will Lawrence's instincts when it comes to making coin return to the fore again? Given that the series has now proved to be accomplished in both areas perhaps this question is academic, but despite enjoying this volume I did miss the more protracted sense of cut and thrust deal-making seen previously so I'd like to see its return sooner rather than later. While it seems that Holo and Lawrence can do little wrong when it comes to regaling us with their adventures, this is still undoubtedly their most sedate outing yet, with both the good and bad points that brings.