One charge often lobbed against secondary-world fantasy novels is that they don’t dwell on the economics of their imagined landscapes. What currency do the people use? Who grows the food? Who manufactured that cloak? The complaint strikes me as a little silly; most realist and historical novels I’ve read are similarly disinterested in these questions if they’re not directly tied to the narrative. I don’t see why the switch to an imaginary place suddenly makes the absence of economic matters a sin. The romantic tradition that influenced fantasy literature involves narratives that don’t, by and large, make economics a primary focus. Maybe our society frowns upon literary creations that seem overtly escapist when they don’t factor in the primary ideologies that run it–in North America, capitalism and economics; similarly, in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the spectre of Marxism. Or maybe the capitalist focus of our society makes dealing with those issues in fantasy seem like a path to being taken seriously in a genre that still isn’t very respected.
Which isn’t to say that narratives where economics play a huge part are boring or unsuitable for fantasy. I spent this summer reading the Spice & Wolf series by Isuna Hasekura, a 17-book series out of Japan that centres heavily on economics. Hasekura takes the high medieval setting of most western fantasy and makes the stories all about the nuts-and-bolts of trade and commerce that those stories usually elide.
Of course, Spice & Wolf isn’t only about that, but the way Hasekura naturally weaves economic fact and theory into his plots is a study in how to make these things approachable. Each book takes a different aspect of commerce in high medieval Europe and finds a way to spin a compelling tale out of it, from coin minting to fur trading to contract law to the interplay between craft guilds and merchant conglomerates. The rise of capitalist systems in the late Middle Ages ties into the larger theme of the series that is more familiar to western fantasy readers: the passing away of an old world full of magic and gods, replaced by a rationalist one run by humankind and bolstered by a scholastic church.
The protagonist, Craft Lawrence, is a seemingly insignificant travelling merchant on the borders of this sea-change, inevitably drawn into the wider conflict when he’s joined by the wolf goddess Holo and pressed into becoming her guide and travelling companion as she tries to find her way to her old home at Yoitsu. She too is a symbol of the great economic and social changes that came over Europe following the Black Death; in this fantasy world, even gods must adapt and change, and other animal-spirits like her have shed their formidable old forms and attempted to disguise themselves as humans and live among their former worshippers. Arrayed against their attempts to adapt is a church that wants them eradicated, and the church’s power also springs from their ability to leverage spiritual authority in order to gain economic and political influence. Even minor tax disputes can become tense and fascinating when they’re tied into a struggle where one cosmology tries to assert itself over another. The way the Not-Catholic church operates in Spice & Wolf is one of the series’ biggest surprises, namely, in how accurately Hasekura depicts developments in the church at the end of the medieval era.
Hasekura pairs his solid grasp of medieval history with a talent for portraying complex relationships between characters. Holo is at once much older and wiser than Lawrence but also oftentimes ignorant and stubborn; acting as a local deity in a remote village for so long means that when she finally decides to abandon her post out of loneliness and dissatisfaction, she confronts a world that is vastly different from the one she knew the last time she went travelling. Lawrence is a tad on the greedy side but compassionate and likeable, his oftentimes clumsy interactions with Holo come from the gap of years and species that separate them. How they come to trust and appreciate each other, to work together and eventually breach the gulf and create something new between themselves and the characters they meet, is believable and a consistent delight. The cavalcade of other people they meet spans the whole range of medieval society–clerks, nuns, knights, priests, townsmen, peasants, and of course, merchants.
What’s so appealing about the world in Spice & Wolf is that while the feudal system and its social inequalities lead to terrible crusades and oppressive lives for the peasants, the people themselves are still capable of goodness and their overall outlook remains positive despite how crappy their situations become. It is possible for the old world of gods and magic to survive, it is possible that all these sweeping intellectual and economic shifts will benefit those on the lower ends of the class scale and not just the nobles, high-ranking clergy and powerful merchant families who precipitate them. Even a sometimes-villainous character like Eve Boland has understandable motivations that make her hard not to root for: ground down under patriarchal feudalism, she manages to find another path towards claiming agency opened up by economic opportunities. The only truly “evil” character never makes his way onscreen; as far as we can tell, the Moon-hunting Bear, a creature that killed many other gods in the past and may have opened the way to human dominance, has passed away.
The relationship between Lawrence and Holo acts to magnify the various economic focuses of each novel, plays with them, and is key to why I found these books so damn readable. The world depicted in Spice & Wolf is not at all unique for those familiar with western fantasy literature, a depiction of high medieval Europe with some names changed and not much cultural flavour otherwise, but the heavy focus on the mechanics of commerce and how those influenced other portions of the medieval world feels fresh.
The entirety of Spice & Wolf is available in English translation. The books are short, quick reads, which helps mitigate the series’ otherwise daunting length, and I haven’t encountered anything else quite like it. Unfortunately, its origin in Japan and cover design choices means it’s mostly only discovered by people who’ve watched the anime adaptation of the first few novels. Don’t get me wrong, the adaptation is excellent, but I think these books deserve a much wider audience than they currently have. Maybe if Yen Press decides to release an e-book version, that might happen.
EDIT: The first volume of Spice and Wolf is now available as an ebook!