Review

by Gabriella Ekens,

Baccano!

Novel 1 - The Rolling Bootlegs

Synopsis:
Baccano! Novel 1

The year was 1711. On a boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a group of alchemists summoned a demon and obtained eternal life. Now in 1930, their invisible influence runs deep throughout their adoptive home, New York City. It's here that a young Firo Prochainezo earns his wings as a Prohibition-era gangster. But what if his organization harbors secrets that even he didn't know about, secrets that will alter the course of his life forever? And what if the local immortals aren't even the weirdest guys in town?

The Rolling Bootlegs is the first volume of Ryohgo Narita's long-running Baccano! series, available for the first time in North America. Spanning centuries and featuring dozens of lovable thieves, assassins, and murderous mafiosos (all with varying degrees of mortality), the adventure has just begun!

Review:

The Baccano! series is already fairly well known amongst Western anime fans for its anime adaptation. Released in 2007, it led to a brief Ryohgo Narita fandom that followed into Durarara!!, his longer-running magnum opus. Compared to that 62 episode behemoth, however, Baccano! got only 16 episodes adapted from the first two novels. Still, it's remembered as a fantastic little show – the anime equivalent of a great Quentin Tarantino movie, just constant frenetic action with devilish characters in an impossibly cool period setting. Cut to nearly ten years later, and the original novels are finally being released in English. So after all this time, do they hold up?

The answer is an enthusiastic yes. While the Baccano! anime is a remarkable work of adaptation, this novel still contains more of what made the show memorable. The anime originally combined the first two books' separate narratives into one jumbled storyline. This first one, The Rolling Bootlegs, contains the events from 1930, involving the Martillo and Gandor families, Dallas's gang, and Szilard Quates. That means the book is much more linear, but it stays hectic and compelling by relying on the same complex juggling of the characters' and reader's knowledge. It's one half of the anime in prose form, and Narita's writing is – fortunately – very good.

The prose in Baccano! is extremely punchy, moving quickly by focusing heavily on dialogue and action. Perhaps because of this, there aren't many of the awkward sentence structures that usually result from translating Japanese prose. The jokes – which also tend to suffer the most in translation – are all perfectly intelligible and quite funny. There's even the occasional poignant passage. I particularly like Narita's characterization of life as a spiral staircase descending into death: “Once you take that first step, you're in, and after that, the only way to go is down. Some go down cautiously, holding the railing, and others fall spectacularly down the center of the spiral.” As Narita describes it, immortality just takes the bottom out of the staircase, making life into a party that goes down forever and ever. That's a solid metaphor for the book's philosophy as a whole – life is a journey towards death, so you might as well try to make it a fun one. Live every moment like it's your last – drinking, fighting, and loving – and life might as well last forever. And if it actually does, that's even better!

As for the characters, I'm happy to report that Isaac and Miria, the chaotic couple of perennial goodwill, are just as fun on the page as they are on the screen. In terms of characterization, Ennis is the strongest player – her transformation from Szilard's blank slate servant into a real person plays out in a few broad strokes over the book's brisk 200 pages. When he's not sharing screentime with the gang of freaks who'll appear in the next book, Firo is an alright lead, and his relative boring-ness serves as an introductory POV to Baccano!'s world. Even the villainous Szilard is well-defined. A story less in tune with human weirdness would've made him into a generic evil jerk, but Baccano! gives him a well-realized psychology and motivation. That's sort of a “thing” for Narita. His ethos seems to be that even the strangest (or murder-iest) people still navigate a tangled web of emotional connections, forming friendships and rivalries just like everyone else. Freaks deserve love too! And while Szilard doesn't get so lucky, he's the first of Narita's many humanized psychopaths. It'll be fun to see more down the line in Baccano!'s story. Otherwise, Narita is already a master writer of tangled plots and lovable lunatics even in this early work.

For this release, Yen Press tried to replicate the original Japanese cover. I don't think it works, mostly because they chose a dramatically different font. In that ornate font, “Baccano!” blends in with the background, making it the last thing I notice on the page. It's especially disappointing since this should be a nice hardcover release. However, I don't think that this'll be a big issue for many people, since I'm a particular stickler for graphic design. Otherwise, the illustrations are very nice. Katsumi Enami is a great artist, and his illustrations capture the raucous joy of Narita's writing.

In this first volume, Baccano! lacks Durarara!!'s immediate potential for depth, but makes up for it by being a blast moment to moment. Narita crams a remarkable amount of content into such a short volume, without ever taking the “light” out of “light novel.” If you're interested in a vivacious, naughty adventure in Prohibition-era NYC, this is worth picking up. Personally, I'm excited for the next volume, where fan-favorites Claire Stanfield and Ladd Russo will finally appear. After that, we'll get material that the English-language Baccano! fan has never encountered. If The Rolling Bootlegs has a flaw, it's that I know there's even better material waiting ahead. I hadn't thought about Baccano! in years, but this book reminded me of its magic, and now I'm back down the rabbit hole.

Grade:
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A

+ Brisk read that packs a lot of content and fun into a relatively short book, smoother-than-usual translation, gorgeous illustrations, holds up against the excellent anime adaptation
Awkward cover design, hyperviolent content

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Production Info:
Story: Ryohgo Narita

Full encyclopedia details about
Baccano! (light novel)

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Baccano! - The Rolling Bootlegs [Hardcover] (Novel 1)

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