~written by Isuna Hasekura
~illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura
~translated by Paul Starr
The fourth volume of Isuna Hasekura's Spice & Wolf light novel series, illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura, was originally published in Japan in 2006, about a year after the author won the Dengeki Novel Silver Prize for the first volume. Yen Press released the English edition of the fourth volume, translated once again by Paul Starr, in 2011. I enjoyed the first two volumes well enough, but it was the third volume that convinced me that I had made the correct choice in pursuing the series. It's a light fantasy, focusing more on day-to-day life and economics rather than grand quests and high magic, although there is a little of that mixed in, too. But what really makes Spice & Wolf work for me are the two endearing leads: Lawrence, a traveling merchant, and his companion by chance Holo, a wolf spirit revered as a harvest goddess. Since I particularly enjoyed the third volume, I was looking forward to reading the fourth.
Following the trail of information that they discovered in Kumersun, Lawrence and Holo continue the search for her home in the north, Yoitsu. They have learned of an abbey near Tereo that is said to collect pagan stories. Although it sounds strange for the Church to be involved in something like that, they hope to find out more about what happened to Yoitsu while Holo was away for centuries. On their way to Tereo, Lawrence and Holo pass through the larger city of Enberch, unwittingly setting themselves up as scapegoats for someone else's schemes. The relations between Enberch and Tereo are strained and it won't take much for the situation to turn volatile. Unaware of this at the time, Lawrence and Holo continue on to Tereo, quickly realizing their trip was more dangerous than they bargained for.
While the Church has always been a prominent element of the world-building of Spice & Wolf, it is of particular importance in the fourth volume. Holo and Lawrence must deliberately seek out the abbey for more information even though it is much safer for them to avoid the Church entirely, Holo being the wolf spirit that she is. The Church is a powerful economic force, which makes it a powerful political force as well. For a largely pagan town like Tereo, this is very problematic and one of the reasons that Lawrence and Holo are treated with such suspicion. They are outsiders to begin with, but their interest in the abbey is particularly unwelcome. Tereo stands to lose a lot if the Church becomes involved in its affairs and so the less attention the town draws the better.
The relationship between Holo and Lawrence remains my favorite part of Spice & Wolf. In the third volume, Lawrence had to confront just how important Holo had become to him in such a short period of time. In the fourth volume, it is clear that the two of them have grown even closer and are more comfortable with each other. There is still plenty of good natured bantering and teasing, and Lawrence still embarrasses very easily (which I find adorable), but he has also gotten to the point where he can more readily read Holo's moods and wishes. Life as a traveling merchant is extremely lonely, and Lawrence and Holo's experiences in Tereo show just how dangerous it can be to be alone. They've both come to value each others companionship a tremendous amount. As a reader, I'm happy to watch their relationship continue to develop and deepen.