Thursday, May 18, 2017

REVIEW: Baccano!, Vol. 1: The Rolling Bootlegs (book) by Ryohgo Narita, illustrated by Katsumi Enami, translated by Taylor Engel

The Rolling Bootlegs is the first volume in the Baccano! light novel series, which spawned the Baccano! anime. I've written a couple reviews of the anime, the most recent one being this one.

Review:

In the year 2002, a Japanese man has won a trip to New York, and he’s having a terrible time. A bunch of teens mugged him and took his most prized possession, his camera. If he wants to get it back, he’ll have to talk to a member of the Camorra (an Italian crime syndicate). Luckily, the man he speaks to is in a good and talkative mood, and boy does he have a story to tell. It starts in 1711, when an alchemist and his comrades summoned a demon who gifted the alchemist with the knowledge of how to make the elixir of immortality, and continues to New York in 1930.

In 1930, a young man named Firo has just been promoted to executive in the Martillo Family, a Camorra group. At that very same time, two cheerful and energetic thieves named Isaac and Miria have just arrived in the city, determined to right their past wrongs by doing only good deeds. Of course, they have a rather odd notion of what constitutes a “good deed.” And at the same time as all of that, an immortal old man named Szilard is being driven to a meeting by Ennis, his artificially created human servant. Szilard has spent the centuries since he became immortal trying to determine the recipe for the elixir of immortality, and it looks like he might have finally achieved his goal. Unfortunately, a fire makes things more complicated, and the two surviving bottles of the perfected elixir go missing.

Ennis has to track the bottles down or risk getting killed by Szilard. Of course, they just happen to look like regular wine, it’s the Prohibition era, and there are two different Camorra groups, a couple idiot thieves, some thugs, and several FBI agents in the area, so her job isn’t going to be easy.

My first exposure to this series was via the anime, which was confusing, violent, high-energy, and lots of fun. One of the reasons it was so confusing was because it didn’t entirely follow a linear timeline. Viewers would be shown events from 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1711, all mixed together. I have since learned that this is because the anime adapted events from the first three novels. Although this first volume in the series jumped around between the various prominent characters and their storylines, it at least stayed rooted in 1930 (with a few brief glimpses of 2002 and 1711).

Although the more linear storytelling was nice, I’d still advise most English-language Baccano! newbies to start with the anime. The only reason I might tell someone to start with the books instead is if 1) they absolutely needed more linear storytelling and/or 2) they couldn’t stand Baccano’s on-screen gore and violence. While this novel was a lot of fun and contained several bits of information that fans of the anime will love, the writing/translation was...not very good.

The book was very heavy on dialogue, which was probably a good thing, since the issues with the writing/translation were most noticeable in the narrative parts. The phrasing often seemed stilted, and there were times when I wondered how accurate the translation was, because certain statements contradicted each other. For example:
“They couldn’t die from injuries or illness. As long as they didn’t age, they could rely on regenerating even if they fell into boiling lava.

However… The exception was that they could be killed with ease.” (50)
I think that this is referring to the way the immortals could “eat” each other - the only way an immortal (the true immortals, anyway) could die was by being absorbed by another immortal. However, the phrasing is strange. Another contradiction:
“Why? Why did this have to happen now? Why a conflagration now of all times?!

There was nothing here that was flammable!

The liquor… I must haul out the liquor…” (57)
Umm… Liquor is actually quite flammable. And then there was just plain awkward writing, like this:
“In the instant he stood, frozen, the muzzle of a gun appeared from behind the falling Seina’s.” (163)
Seina’s what? I’m pretty sure it’s referring to Seina’s falling body, but the sentence structure made it seem like it was referring to something like “the falling Seina’s gun.”

In addition to awkward writing, the book committed the crime of being a historical novel with, at best, vague and handwavy descriptions. One of the things I had been hoping the Baccano! novels would include was interesting period details. There were a few, here and there, but not nearly as many as I had expected. Instead, more of the focus was on the action and dialogue. On the plus side, that probably contributed to this being a very quick read.

As awkward as the writing/translation was, it somehow never leached the fun out of the overall story. I still enjoyed this combination of Prohibition era setting, goofballs and deadly criminals, and immortality-granting wine. I could remember the end result of the two missing bottles of wine, but I couldn’t remember how they got to where they needed to be, so it was fun trying to keep track of them. Also, it was surprisingly nice to see these characters again. I haven’t seen Baccano! in a few years, and this book made me think that a rewatch might be a good idea.

If I had to pick favorite characters from the anime, I’d probably go with Isaac, Miria, and Claire/Vino. I still found Isaac and Miria to be delightful in this book, but one thing that surprised me was how much I liked and felt sympathy for Ennis. I couldn’t recall her making much of an impression on me when I saw the anime. I think the book might have included details about her history that weren’t included in the anime, but it’s been so long I can’t be sure.

Eh, I should probably wrap this up. Overall, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected I would, although I’d hesitate to recommend it to Baccano! newbies - try the anime first. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the anime, it’s definitely worth giving this book a shot, if only for the extra character information.

Extras:

There's a 3-page afterword written by the author. Also, these aren't exactly extras, but the book includes several black-and-white illustrations and 8 pages of color illustrations (or 6, depending on how you're counting). Unfortunately, the color illustrations have text on them that needs to be read, and it's a bit hard on the eyes.

The illustrations were nice enough - often a better way to get an idea of what a particular character was supposed to look like than any of the descriptions in the text, if there were any. However, I did note one possible historical inaccuracy. One of the illustrations showed a 1930 New York cop. I googled their uniforms, and I think Enami might have gone with a more modern uniform design than was appropriate.

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