BtT Light Novel Club Chapter 19: Spice and Wolf, Vol. 2

We started the Light Novel Club with Spice and Wolf, and now we have returned to this classic title for more wheelin’ and dealin’ with a wolf goddess. Joining me are TWWK and Jeskai Angel as we pick apart volume 2…

1. What are your overall thoughts about this volume?

TWWK: After a slow start, volume two hit me much the same as volume did, with an appreciation for Hasekura’s writing. There were of course moments of action, but most interesting aspects remain related to economics, trade, and culture, and for one with little interest in two of those three topics, I’ve found these novels to be spellbinding. I enjoyed volume two very much.

Jeskai Angel: The good: the first volume’s economic lectures were a bit tedious. For vol. 2, business dealings remained front and center, but this time the story did a much smoother job of weaving the economic ideas into the narrative. Also, I liked Holo and Norah. The rapid escalation of schemes and counter-schemes toward the end of the book was fun. And I like the mysterious, ambiguous way the presence of other supernatural forces besides Holo was worked into the world.

The bad: I remain uncomfortable with the negative depiction of the literal-Roman-Catholic-Church-in-all-but-name, but at least it wasn’t any worse than in the first book?

The ugly: ultimately, despite this volume’s good qualities, I enjoyed it even less than the first book (which I didn’t especially care for in the first place). As for why, well, I’ll talk about the protagonist under the next question.

stardf29: Overall, I thought this was a solid second volume. It started out a bit slow but once Lawrence finds himself in trouble and has to find his way out of it it got more interesting. The wrangling of economics is interesting enough but the main highlight continues to be the developing relationship between Lawrence and Holo.

2. What are your thoughts on the characters (old and new) in this volume?

Jeskai Angel: After reading the first volume, I felt somewhat ambivalent about Lawrence, but vol. 2 solidified my negative outlook toward him. Lawrence is greedy, arrogant, stubborn, selfish, and deceitful. There were signs of these traits in the previous book, but they are more glaring — and, indeed, central to the plot — this time around. Lawrence is a realistic (verging on downright cynical) depiction of how we humans often behave. He’s not entirely evil, having feeble benevolent instincts and a conscience that tends to be ignored, but it’s not enough for me like, respect, or enjoy reading about him. The most positive emotion I could muster toward him was pity, along the hope that if he survives this, maybe someday he’ll grow into a better person. Lawrence’s story is instructive but depressing, a little like stories in the Bible about people sinning. Maybe this pays off with character growth some volumes later, but at least for now, it’s not much fun.

On a more positive note, Holo remained entertaining. The author does a strong job of balancing her ancient wisdom and her youthful mischief. It’s also great seeing Holo endlessly outsmart pretty much everyone, validating her claim to being a wisewolf. Finally, Holo actually seemed more genuinely God-like in this volume. The way she forgives Lawrence and keeps offering him salvation, despite his stupidity and rejection of her and endless dependence on her, is the best part of the story.

Besides the two leads, characters from vol. 1 had no presence. This is logical, in some respects, given that it’s the story of a traveling merchant, but it’s also strange that the author would just dump all the time spent developing characters and setting for the first book. Given the emphasis on travel thus far, I wonder if the series continues with this episodic format, where each volume visits a new city with all new characters, or if the author eventually starts to weave other recurring characters into the tale.

Norah was the standout new character here, a dynamic combination of innocence and naivete with competence and perceptiveness. This actually made her the most unpredictable character in the book. I could never quite tell just how smart and capable versus inexperienced and trusting she really was, and thus couldn’t anticipate what she’d do.

TWWK: I agree with most of your assessments, Jeskai, regarding the characters—first volume included. I couldn’t remember any characters other than the dual protagonists, but the ones introduced in volume two were far more memorable, and particularly Norah. She’s lovable for sure, but because of her capability and somewhat mysterious past, and because of the double-crosses that have already occurred over two volumes, I always had this thought in the back of my mind: “I hope Norah doesn’t betray Lawrence and Holo, but I could possibly see it happening…”

Holo was a pretty awesome in this volume. Her character was rounded out more through this adventure, making it easier to root for her. I’m fact, I wonder if she’s too likeable heading into volume three, an almost-perfect character whose “imperfections” are quirks the readers enjoy.

Lawrence, though, is as imperfect as Jeskai says, but I like that about him. I don’t find anything about him too off-putting. Hasekura has crafted a protagonist who is smart and determined, but constantly learning or being reminded that he’s “not there yet.” Further, the nervousness he sometimes demonstrates adds a cuteness that paints him as a very anime male protagonist, even if the setting of this novel and atmosphere created is very different from the norm.

I like him, I think, for personal reasons as well. He reminds me quite of myself when I was younger—someone always scheming, who thinks of himself as having greater character than he does, and who is not quite as smart as he believes he is. There’s a great amount of pride in Lawrence, as previously mentioned, but he responds well in humility—and that’s a trait I find rather admirable (and lacking when I was the merchant’s age).

stardf29: To start with, given that the story seems to focus around Lawrence and Holo, it makes sense that they are the only returning characters here. That said, Norah definitely was quite a lot more interesting than you’d expect a one-off character to be, as you two have already described. It makes me wonder if, at this point, the author was planning to have her come back in a later volume.

Holo continues to be quite interesting and a lot of fun. As befitting of a deity, she always seems to be a step ahead of the humans around her, whether it be in her knowledge, power, or simply in her social interactions. I get the feeling that I’m starting to get to know what she’s like, but it still feels like there’s a lot more to her I don’t know. And that works well for this sort of “human deity” character. At the same time, we do see some more of her “human”-ness here, with the sense that she cares about Lawrence a lot and wants to be someone special to him.

And now for Lawrence. I still like him overall here as a flawed character, who’s willing to use underhanded tactics when in a pinch but is not so far gone as to not at least feel some guilt when doing so. I do have to agree that this is more of a feeling of “pity” than anything, seeing him do what he does simply because if he doesn’t, there’s basically no future for him. And I do hope that he can eventually find himself in a better position and then, perhaps, he will have a better moral compass to follow. So yeah, I guess I find that sort of character interesting enough to work for me as a main character, and as a counterpart to Holo.

3. Having Holo come to the rescue is a great thrill, but is it a good narrative choice?

Jeskai Angel: Probably not. Holo also really saved the day in vol. 1, but I think it felt quite a bit different because… A. it was the first volume and we hadn’t seen this story before, and… B. even if he wasn’t the lead solver of problems, Lawrence was less stupid and more proactive. There was a better balance between his contributions to the plot vs. those of Holo. The second volume recycled the plot of the first in major ways, but with Lawrence causing more of the problems and contributing less to the solutions, which I think was ultimately unsatisfying. I think another reason why “Holo saves the day” worked better in vol. 1 is that she was more mysterious back then. How smart is she, just what is she truly capable of…these were more murky issues in the first book. Similarly, the help she offered Lawrence was more unsolicited. Those factors helped keep the first volume from feeling like Lawrence just depends on Holo to solve all his problems. In contrast, Lawrence openly, repeatedly relies on Holo in the second volume, and her wisdom and powers have been much more clearly established, leaving less uncertainty about how things will play out.

“Now let me be clear,” I have no problem with a god or god-like character saving a protagonist; such can be an extremely satisfying plot development. For example, what if the narrative were presenting a message about how Lawrence needs to trust a god more instead of putting all his faith in his own abilities? That could be a perfectly fine message. But Holo and Lawrence both go out of their way to downplay Holo’s divinity, which undermines any chance of a “trust a higher power” type of moral. Likewise, there’s no hint of a cautionary lesson about the dangers of excessive self-reliance or some other such thing.

That leaves us with a protagonist who seems kind of cowardly and wimpy as he passively waits for his werewolf girlfriend to fix everything.

So in the end, I hesitate to say that “Having Holo come to the rescue” is a “bad” narrative decision, per se, but I think that choice was implemented in a less than satisfying way.

TWWK: I get what you’re saying, Jeskai, and I don’t disagree. Although you’re much harder on Lawrence’s character than I am, I’m still not real happy with the point, which was said on more than on occasion in volume two, that if things don’t work, it was okay cause Holo could just do everything herself anyway.

However, I do detect a humility in Lawrence that maybe you feel isn’t present. Two volumes have built him up into a good merchant, but one who is still young and relatively inexperienced, meaning that he’ll make good decisions most of the time and then some really bad decisions. When he’s done so, Lawrence has readily admitted what a bad situation he’s put himself in, but that pride he has (and maybe his youthfulness as well) leads him to have this gumption that maybe isn’t supported by reality, as well as forgetfulness to incorporate what he’s learned.

Ultimately, I wonder where the author is headed in all this. I hope that Lawrence matures and is able to both grow and bring something more than simple companionship into the relationship with Holo,while she is used as more than as a terrifyingly awesome deity with a cute side. I would love to see her help him grow so that he can actually save her at some point, and even better, that a situation arises where neither necessarily needs to save the other, but rather a more complicated situation develops that require solving. Two volumes in is both too early, I think, to expect that or to judge whether Holo’s wolf form is used too freely, but it’s not too early to question it.

Jeskai Angel: The same (or nearly the same) behavior can hold radically different meanings depending on context. Thus, Lawrence’s reliance on Holo could conceivably stem from positive sources (e.g. humility), or negative sources (e.g. cowardice). I would say I see how some of Lawrence’s actions have potential to be interpreted as signs of humility. I just didn’t feel like the narrative context gave me much justification for taking that more hopeful view.

stardf29: Holo is literally a deus ex machina. (I feel like I made that joke in the vol. 1 discussion too…)

Anyway, looking at it, it seems to me that the “drama” in Holo’s rescue isn’t actually in whether or not she will rescue Lawrence; that much definitely felt like a foregone conclusion. The drama was more in whether she would kill Norah in the process, which would weigh heavily on Lawrence. So in that sense, the rescue itself was pretty cool in its expectedness (like an OP isekai hero rushing in to save the day), but it still provided just a bit of drama, as it turns out.

(Jeskai Angel: Heh. I remember reading a review of some volume of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? that complained that the outcome was too deus ex machina. Bear in mind this is a story where like half the supporting cast are literal gods. Forget the “ex machina part,” you can just stop at “deus.”)

4. What are your thoughts on the relationship between Lawrence and Holo as of this volume?

Jeskai Angel:  I’m not really clear on the timeline for vols. 1-2, but it felt to me like Lawrence and Holo’s relationship was moving surprisingly quickly. Maybe I missed the indicators of time passing, but in my head, they went from total strangers to seriously caring about each other to open flirting in the space of a week, maybe two. Not saying this is necessarily a bad or completely unrealistic thing, just that it really surprised me. “That escalated quickly,” indeed.

One of the more interesting dimensions to the relationship is how Lawrence perceives Holo. At different points in this volume, he thinks about her as an ancient goddess, a spooky scary supernatural monster, a get out of jail free card, a business consultant, a friend, a woman, an obstacle, and so on. I can’t help but think of the numerous images the Bible uses to describe our relationship with God: he’s our father, king, shepherd, brother, master, high priest, savior, friend, bridegroom, sacrificial lamb, the original of which we are images, the vine from which we grow, and much more. It would be cool if the series didn’t downplay Holo’s deity so much and instead more openly embraced to the chance to explore the true complexities of human-divine relationships.

TWWK: Jeskai’s absolutely right in that the relationship took quite a jump in this volume—I quite liked it, though, for a couple of reasons. I get so tired of how anime (and television shows, especially in the past) skirts around relationship development, titillating viewers and readers with jumps in development before resetting or moving backwards again. It’s annoying and unrealistic. I think the development in volume two is authentic, though. The familiarity and love (romantic or otherwise) between these two has formed by the extent of their sacrifice for one another and shared experience of near-death and disastrous situations and through their growing affection for one another. It’s nice to see, and it allows room for all sorts of growth in future volumes—primarily, toward what it means for a normal man to have a relationship with a wolf goddess.

stardf29: Yeah, things definitely moved quickly for these two, though not so quickly that they’re already engaged/married or anything (I’ve seen my fair share of those in LNs). It’s definitely nice to get some movement in their relationship and not have to suffer through a lot of waffling about, and while it’s moving fast, their relationship still feels believable, at least as much as one can imagine given Holo’s fantastical nature. They’re closer, but there’s still some distance between them, as there should be.

And yes, there are definitely many facets to how Lawrence sees Holo, which is cool to see. At this moment, he still by and large has to rely on her, while understanding that he cannot control her, either. It’s fascinating to see, and again, this is the highlight of this series for me so far.

5. Do you think this series has any relevance for the current real-world economic crisis?

Jeskai Angel: Not really? I mean, there are timeless truths that come up, like the importance of information, but nothing that seemed to have especial relevance to current circumstances. Any attempt to make application from the story is complicated by the fact that many ideas about economics aren’t universally accepted truths. So do we accept all the author’s underlying assumptions? If you made a bunch of economists, businessmen, investors, etc., read this series, I’m confident you’d get a variety of responses disagreeing with various claims made in the story.

TWWK: Beyond the intricacies of economics, I do see a kind a parallel here in how an unexpected fallout affects people. There’s a tone of dread throughout the volume, particularly because of the weight upon Lawrence’s shoulders but also because of his partners in the deal, who were the first to bottom out. With so many losing their jobs right now and suffering so greatly, volume two offers a chance for us to perhaps feel along with them a bit, to experience the desperation that might be experiencing, and more importantly, then, to act and help others.

stardf29: Yeah, I asked this question because I saw how the main conflict came about because of a major event suddenly being cancelled and couldn’t help but think, “well now, that suddenly sounds very familiar.” I suppose it’s true that there’s no real “life lessons” or anything going on here; the characters by and large act in their own self-interest to keep themselves going rather than try to change anything on a greater scale, even resorting to an “illegal” activity like smuggling to get by.

But maybe that is the “lesson” here: by and large, people are going to be concerned about themselves first and foremost. They simply can’t afford to care about everyone else’s problems when their own livelihood is at stake. At most, some people might care about a few others’ plights, like how Lawrence wanted the plan to succeed for Norah’s sake, even if that was largely brought on by the guilt from involving her in the first place. All this is to say that, while we can talk about the greater picture, we have to at least understand that most people are worried about themselves and their own survival, and interact with them with that in mind.

6. What are your thoughts on the illustrations for the Spice and Wolf light novels?

Jeskai Angel: There were illustrations?!

^ accurate reflection of how much of an impact the illustrations had on my experience with the book

I honestly can’t remember any of the pictures, despite having finished reading the book just a few days ago. To be fair, I tend to glance over the illustrations in most of the light novels I read, so this isn’t really a knock on Spice & Wolf in particular, but still, nothing stood out enough that I even recall the pictures.

TWWK: (Bad anime fan, you!) Illustrations are part of what makes light novels special, and Spice and Wolf’s stand out, both positively and negatively. Holo is shown partially nude, and I imagine it’s the same throughout the series, which I think hampers the potential audience for a work that must be packaged as “mature” when the writing is mature in a different way. Imagine younger audiences reading about ECONOMICS? There’s a missed opportunity here.

Otherwise, while I appreciate how the simplicity of the artworks and colors used on the cover convey the same rustic feel of the rest of the novel, they feel quite amateurish. I wonder if the growth of the light novel industry has led to better artists being part of it, because this more classic series features some of the worst art I’ve seen. That said, I haven’t read as many light novels as you two have, so my survey is limited.

(Jeskai Angel: *accepts rebuke* Yes, Twwk-senpai. I’ll do better in the future, senpai.)

stardf29: Looking over the illustrations, and I have to agree that the art isn’t really all that much of a highlight here in this volume. The simplicity of the art style is one thing here, but I think what really hurts the art in this volume is that it is pretty much all just characters. For the most part they aren’t really doing anything, and as a result the illustrations for this book is basically a glorified portrait gallery. (As a side note, there are other light novels that have this issue.)

It’s a bit unfortunate because vol. 1 was actually a fair amount better about this. There were some really nice illustrations there that actually captured events and emotions: ones like Holo clinging to Lawrence that uses a nice three-panel structure, or Holo in wolf form making an attack in the underground sewers. The art style might be simplistic but the pictures themselves are dynamic and interesting and there just wasn’t that in this volume. Hopefully we can see more of the good illustrations in later volumes.

And while in general I didn’t really care for the illustrations this volume, I did like the one of Norah holding her sheepdog. It might have still been more or less a portrait but at least it portrayed a bond between the two of them, so that was pretty nice.

Thanks for joining our discussion! You can post your own answers and thoughts about the volume in the comments.

On April 30th we will announce our next titles, but here are some clues for those titles…

  • The cry of Selene
  • “…suppose that five taxa have been clustered by UPGMA based on a matrix of genetic distances.”

See you then!

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