In these times of financial turmoil, with fat cats and corrupt bankers quaffing champagne left and right and rousing the ire of the public, it is perhaps fitting that this is also the period where Yen Press has chosen to license Isuna Hasekura's series of award-winning Spice and Wolf light novels, which first debuted in Japan in 1996 and has more recently enjoyed a successful transition by way of two series of anime.
While most certainly not set in modern times, Spice and Wolf clearly holds the economics of its faux-medieval era close to its heart, with this first volume introducing us to the world of Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant with an altogether most impressive head for figures, bartering and trading. Of course, a man travelling around trading in goods would never fill an entertaining novel by itself, which brings us to the wolf to which the title refers. Horo, the wolf in question, is in fact a goddess who has watched over the wheat harvest of a particular town named Pasloe for many, many years, only to find herself increasingly superfluous to requirements in the minds of the villagers. Thus, Lawrence's wagon becomes an opportunity to escape to pastures new, and before we know it an uneasy relationship has been formed between this simple but intelligent merchant and his new equally smart and savvy travelling companion. Of course, it helps that Horo just happens to have a captivatingly beautiful semi-human form, complete with wolf ears and tail to satisfy any aesthetic demands required by the reader.
Essentially, that's all there is to it as far as this opening volume of Spice and Wolf goes - Yes, there are some surprisingly in-depth discussions about the economics, trade and intricacies of currency from this ancient time that add a genuinely authentic feel to proceedings, and yes, there is a broader story arc that looks to inject some peril and danger into proceedings, but ostensibly Spice and Wolf is all about the dynamic between Lawrence and Holo as they begin their journey together.
Thankfully, this character dynamic actually holds more than enough interest in its own right to keep this first volume of the series flowing, and although it doesn't perhaps promise quite the same natural flow as its anime adaptation it's still a thing of beauty watching the two lead characters verbally spar with one another, sometimes playfully and sometimes less so as their thoughts and worries mingle and crash together in ever-more fascinating ways. Even when Horo is in danger of becoming too much of a "tsundere" stereotype, somehow Hasekura always manages to reign his female lead in just before she spills over into cliché, asking forgiveness from the reader courtesy of some biting lines and comebacks that can't help but raise a smile.
The only downside of the way in which the author positions the world that revolves around his primary characters is that it can be heavy going, leaving you to either dive head-first into discussions about metal purity in coins or just let it wash over you whilst fearing that you might be missing something important. The constant focus on trading and economics could well be off-putting to many, but if you can drill down beyond that you'll find one of the great character pairings of recent times just below the surface, complete with some generally decent illustrations courtesy of Juu Ayakura (although he needs to work on drawing Holo's true wolf form) that round things off nicely. That is a fairly big "if" though, so if currency and fur-trading discussions leave you cold then Spice and Wolf's other charms might not be enough to win you over.