Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall
Many years in the past, Wall Maria still stands strong. The people are divided in their notions of whether humanity should continue to live behind her protection or not, some even worshiping the Titans as gods. Most have never seen one of the monstrous beings, and for weaponsmith Angel, everything changes the day that he does. Charged with crafting the weapons for the unpopular Survey Corps, the sight of a Titan and what it can do motivates Angel to create a new way of fighting the supposedly immortal beasts – something that can bring the Survey Corps up to a Titan's level...
Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan manga has spawned an impressive juggernaut – as of this writing, there are multiple manga spin-offs, a successful anime series, and a variety of goods both serious and non. Ryo Suzukaze, a light novel author known in the US for his .hack//CELL novels, was asked by his editor at Kodansha what he would like to work on next. His answer was Attack on Titan, which brings us to this particular incarnation of Isayama's world.
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is a fairly sparse 200 pages, much more novel than illustration. The story focuses very tightly on its protagonist, Angel Aaltonen, an eighteen-year-old craftsman who smiths the weapons used by the Survey Corps in their excursions beyond Wall Maria. Interestingly, the Survey Corps is not the heroic bunch we are used to seeing them as – according to the humans alive at the time of the story, they put the city, and therefore humanity, at risk of Titan attack every single time they go out. More conservative factions see them as lambs being sent to the slaughter, since common wisdom holds that Titans are fully immortal. Why waste precious human lives on a useless mission? Since Angel has a close friend in the Survey Corps, to say nothing of the fact that they provide his livelihood, he feels differently about it, though one gets the distinct feeling that he's fairly ambivalent. As long as Solm returns alive, he'll keep on keeping on.
This doesn't really change until halfway through the book, making it very much a novel in two parts. For the first half of the story, Angel is busy trekking to and from the new Factory City being constructed nearer to the third wall. (Angel, of necessity for the story, lives in Shiganshina, close to Wall Maria.) The city is supposed to optimize production of weapons and other crafted items, and it may offer the power needed to process a mysterious new plant material that will prove vital in the fight against the Titans: iron bamboo. The story offers a decent enough origin story for the material, even going so far as to have Angel and fellow weaponsmith Xenophon go to the grove that produces it and discuss how it might have come to exist. While in the Factory City the two learn much about the substance and how best to use it, along with the existence of another strange new natural resource, Iceburst Stone. These discoveries are pivotal not just to Before the Fall but also the entire Attack on Titan world, one of Suzukaze's most impressive feats as a writer.
The second half of the tale picks up when Angel returns to Shiganshina District. Before he left, he heard a Titan for the first time and witnessed a small amount of its destructive capabilities. That event triggered a round of Titan Worshiping madness, with the end result of a mob of demonstrators managing to open the gate. The result? A scene we are all too familiar with, with a Titan entering the town and causing havoc. Angel suddenly realizes what is at stake for humanity, and Suzukaze makes that realization as horrific as possible. In some ways the Titans are more terrifying when it is up to us to imagine them, and it is easy to see how Angel could be shaken out of his semi-complacent state and be driven to create a certain piece of equipment that we all recognize.
Indeed, it is the scenes with the Titans that really stand out. Suzukaze's writing style is very visual, to the point where it is actually a bonus that Thores Shibamoto only provides a single illustration per chapter. The prose can make your stomach churn and hair stand on end, not so much in a straight horror way, but more in the sense of a nightmare coming true when you had convinced yourself that it was just a dream. The Titans are described to be more human than Isayama's art makes them out to be, which really adds to the horror of the story being told. Suzukaze doesn't overdo the gore, although he does use a few choice words, making for just enough understatement to make your imagination take the words and run. That he can get new fear out of an established story is worth noting, making him one of the more accomplished light novel authors to get an English translation.
If you aren't tired of Attack on Titan or perhaps just want a boost to flagging interest, Before the Fall is absolutely worth reading. It definitely helps to have a familiarity with the base storyline before picking this up, however, so I can't recommend it as an introduction to the franchise. For established fans, however, this is a treat – well-written, engrossing, and with the feel of historical fiction rather than fantasy, showing how immersed in the world the author became. He'll pull you in too.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Very visual style of writing, feels like an actual piece of history rather than an installment in a fantasy series. Mostly smooth translation.
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