I found the first volume of Yen Press' Spice & Wolf to be an odd mixture of mundane economic treatise and extremely explicit fan service and as a whole not quite as engaging as the anime of the same name (both the manga and anime appear to be adapted from a light novel series also published by Yen Press in the U.S.)
Spice & Wolf takes place in what I assume to be an alternative version of Europe where "the Church" is busy stamping out paganism and doing its best to assure its supremacy by taking advantage of burgeoning capitalist markets. Kraft Lawrence, a young traveling merchant, acquires an unusual companion when discovers a naked girl in the back of his cart...a naked girl who just happens to have wolf ears and a tail. The girl reveals that she is in fact Holo, a "wisewolf" who is a pagan goddess of the harvest which means that she can transform into human form or into the form of a rather monstrous looking (to human eyes anyway) wolf.
Lawrence and Holo agree to team up to turn a tidy profit in their endeavors, but it isn't clear quite yet exactly how much Holo has to offer. She's certainly naked quite a bit -- after all, goddesses aren't burdened with a human sense of modesty -- and she often pouts and preens like a spoiled child. However, it is hinted she has a gift at "reading" people, which is a valuable skill in a world where we can no longer do business with only our immediate neighbors. Lawrence is a smart fellow, who often weighs his business options carefully...a little too carefully, to be honest. If it weren't for Holo's unpredictable temperament, the bulk of the book is otherwise taken up by lengthy discussions about the price of wheat or furs, or the inevitable process by which currency becomes devalued.
There's a kind of schizophrenic feel to the book -- very technical discussions of economic exchange are inter-spaced with fairly naughty depictions of Holo (and Lawrence at one point) in the buff. I do enjoy the developing relationship between the two partners, with Holo's haughty personality and Lawrence's sensible nature generating just enough spark to break through the often duller discourses on capitalist theory. As a whole, the first volume of the manga doesn't quite explore the premise as in great as depth as the anime (the first season of which has been released in the U.S. by Funimation). For instance, the anime raises the stakes in Holo and Lawrence maintaining a stable partnership in light of the Church's ever widening influence and persecution of pagan culture and those who practice it. Holo and Lawrence seem to need each other in the anime in ways they don't seem to in the manga (Holo is certainly useful to Lawrence but she lacks some of the vulnerability and loneliness that explains why she might actually need him, a mere human).
Spice & Wolf as a comic is a bit rough around the edges, as I'm never quite sure what audience is being served here. I'm not all that interested in a naked wolf girl, yet I chuckle in sympathy when Holo traps Lawrence with her verbal acrobatics and tells him cheekily that "all men are fools." However, even with two dynamic leads, I often find myself skimming discussions of how the purity of currency is controlled in the hopes of seeing Holo and Lawrence return to their verbal sparring. In the end, I find myself more confused by the fan service than annoyed since it is the only element that pushes this otherwise PG-styled manga into "mature" territory. I'm curious to see if volume 2 can get beyond the "novelty" of a naked wolf-girl and develop this partnership into something more enduring.
Review copy provided by Yen Press.