by Matt Reeves
In a genre that is as growingly popular as it is seemingly cliché, it's hard to imagine something coming along that could potentially shatter the mold, especially when it seems authors are bent on repeating the same formula over and over again. However, that is exactly what happened last December when Yen Press, a Manga/Graphic Novel imprint of Hachette Book Group, jumped into the world of Young Adult literature for its second time and published the debut Werewolf themed novel "Spice and Wolf". It was a big gamble with even larger financial risks involved for the publisher. Could a Manga (the Japanese word for Comics) publisher make a successful bid at YA fiction?
Before going any further, I feel it's necessary to explain something. "Spice and Wolf" is a Young Adult novel from Japan. It originally debuted in 2005 as an entry in the prestigious nationwide Dengeki Novel Prize competition, going on to win the Silver Medal to much critical acclaim. It was the young twenty-seven year olds first step into the world of publishing. One year later, the Dengeki Bunko imprint released his novel to the masses and from there it became a sensational bestseller almost upon arrival. To date, there have been fifteen novels published in the book series since its initial publication, with the sixteenth due in the near future. All together, the series has sold nearly 4 million copies. It has been featured three times in the yearly Japanese YA Book Guide "This Light Novel Is Awesome!", placing first in 2007 and winning the award for `Best Female Character'. Besides receiving mass acclaim, it has also been adapted into several hit television shows as well as a popular ongoing Manga.
Recognizing the potential sales and wishing to diversify its operations, Yen Press purchased the license for the book series and released the first English edition in December of 2009. It was the second novel published by their company, and unlike their first attempt, did not already have as big of an existing fan base in America. Facing the reality of previous attempts to publish Japanese YA, nearly all of which failed miserably on a financial and marketing level, the Manga imprint braced itself for low sales. Would Americans be open to foreign YA? That was the question on many peoples' minds at the time of release.
Leaving aside those details for the time being, let's get to the heart of the review, which of course is the novel itself.
Set within Europe during the Medieval Ages, the story introduces us to the laid back merchant Kraft Lawrence as he travels with his horse and wagon across the rolling country side. Moving from one town to another he sells and trades differing goods ranging from wheat to animal skins. The world in which we find our main character is one under the strict and oppressive rule of the Roman Catholic Church, but one in which the seeds of descent are spreading as rumors of Church financial problems surface along with higher taxes on trade. It is a world extremely foreign to our Modern settings and therefore all the more magical.
The novel begins with Lawrence's startling discovery of a naked young girl in the back of his wagon one night after trading in a nearby rural town, and it quickly grows stranger. This young girl has a set of wolf ears atop her head and a large bushy tail protruding from her lower back. All of this is made even more beyond belief when she announces her identity as Holo. This name is recognizable to Lawrence. It's the name of the nearby town's local harvest deity. "Are you a God?" he asks incredulously. "I have been called a God by some for a long time. But I am nothing as great as a deity. I am merely Holo." With these simple words, a heated discussion begins between the two. At the end, it comes down to a request from the girl. She has grown tired of helping the town's crops and longs to return to her homeland in the North. She can't do it on her own as she would be crucified by the Church if discovered. So a deal is reached between the spice trader and wolf. As long as she repays all expenses, he will allow her to travel beside him on his way north. Agreeing, the two start out on their journey, unaware of the dangers that await them. Could the young merchant have made the best or worst deal of his short career? Only time will tell.
What can I say about this novel? First, the translation is top notch. While mildly rough at the beginning, I would be willing to bet this is more the fault of the writer then the translator since it was a debut work, it quickly evens out and reads off seamlessly. Filled with witty conversations, richly painted settings, thought provoking events and intelligent well developed characters, there is nearly nothing to not like about this work of fiction except for perhaps one thing. It's "too" good a page turner. While the first three chapters for the most part progress very gradually, building up character's and settings, from the fourth on till the end it is a non-stop ride to the finish line. I found myself flipping through it so fast that by the time I was at the end I was frustrated with how quickly the story was wrapped up. Be prepared, you will want to keep reading even after you finish. The world of Spice and Wolf is not one you can depart from easily. Luckily, the second book in the series is already out in English.
To bring this review back around full circle, what "Spice and Wolf" represents is a shattering to the mold that has become Werewolf fiction. It has proven that you don't need to have a Werewolf named Jacob or a girl named Bella in order to be magical; that you can combine romance and medieval economics to give birth to something truly original and enchanting. Ironically and appropriately, it's published by an imprint under the very publisher that brought us those two famous fictional teens.
So how did it fare when it came to America? Better than anyone could have imagined. While not experiencing the same sales it has in Japan due to a lack of advertising, it has sold quite well and proven that there is in fact a growing market within America hungry for new stories and ideas.
So what are you waiting for? Go pick up a copy of this phenomenal novel at your local bookstore as soon as possible. You'll be sure to sink your fangs, I mean teeth, into it.