This first volume has been previously reviewed by Cho.
The Baccano! light novels are likely one of the most triumphant licenses for fans since the wave of interest in the medium began in the West. Originally written by Ryohgo Narita in 2002 for the Dengeki Novel Prize, this first story found enough popularity to spawn it into a now 22+ volume ongoing series, set in continuity with his later works Durarara!!, Etsusa Bridge and Vamp! (The latter two yet unlicensed) à la CLAMP or TYPE-MOON.
Its incredibly popular anime adaptation from 2007 is where I would expect majority of people to have been first introduced to the the crazy world of Prohibition, gangsters and alchemists (myself included), and made Baccano a beloved franchise (and coveted license) years before light novels were an established and viable part of the western otaku market.
This first book, subtitled The Rolling Bootlegs, was released by Yen Press in May 2016 in English, with seven books having been released since. Following a near-overwhelming amount of characters, this book established the multi-POV style Narita is now known for, whilst never becoming complicated or hard to follow.
First, we start at the end. The opening is aptly named Epilogue 1, following a Japanese photographer visiting New York City in 2002. After being saved from a mugging, he meets a man, who tells him an interesting story…
Then we have the prologue. The year is 1711, and a boat full of pilgrims is sailing to find the New World. Banished from their homelands, they are all in search of knowledge far beyond current human understanding. On a dark, stormy night during their trip, they manage to summon a demon with alchemy…
Next is our main story during 1930’s New York. Prohibition has gangs of all sorts fighting and scheming over territory and honor, and we’re thrust into one crazy day where everything changed…
Baccano is a lot to understand at first glance. The word ‘baccano’ in Italian means ‘a noisy racket’, and the series certainly lives up to that. Framing this particular volume with the ‘let me tell you a story’ I think helps ease the reader into everything that is to come, and allows Narita to establish such a dense world without having to hand-hold us throughout. We have the main historical setting of New York, right in the thick of Prohibition—an iconic and exciting setting for any story—infused with the fun ridiculousness of supernatural possibilities, and a crazy cast of characters to go alongside it. It’s ruthless with it’s era-appropriate violence, but the writing never drags into ‘torture porn’ or overwhelming despair. In fact, The Rolling Bootlegs is a light-hearted book even when filled with shoot-ups and knife fights. Narita has a great talent for intuitive and natural comedy—especially with dialogue and narration—and the translation done by Taylor Engel for Yen On has retained it perfectly.
To anyone previously familiar with the series, it’s well known that Baccano (and Durarara) doesn’t truly have ‘main characters’ that we follow exclusively. The point of view shifts throughout chapters with freedom, and instead we follow a group, a community, as this crazy day unfolds. In saying that, the two who drive this book are Firo and Ennis—two sides of this story who slowly spiral together towards the grand finale.
As a young man barely beyond his teens, Firo is joining the Camorra as their newest member. Having grown up on the mean streets of New York alongside mafia and the poor, he’s willing to dedicate his life to the ruthless family he’s found, regardless of the danger. He’s young and passionate, but easy-going and not unnecessarily cruel. His advisor, Maisa, fusses over him and the risk he’s taking by joining the family, but his fighting skills are top notch, and he’s good enough to tussle with the lot of them.
On the opposite side is Ennis. Un-aging and empty, she is a hapless puppet and victim of the only father she has ever known—her life revolving around assisting and protecting his goals without question. She’s an assassin with no ethical or moral objections, because she was created that way, but the quiet whispers in the back of her mind push her to finally think, question things, for herself.
These two run into each other one afternoon; Firo preparing for his acceptance ceremonial test, and Ennis trying to find the man who has stolen a very special liquor. From this point on, their fates and circumstances are changed, all thanks to the crazy people in this crazy town.
Because, as I said, these two are hardly the only characters in this book, and this is not the only plot line(s) we’re following. We also have Isaac and Miria—fan favorites and the most comedic of the lot—two idiot thieves who are now trying to counteract their bad crimes with good ones; Dallas Genoard, a rich-kid thug who causes more trouble than he can handle; the Gandor brothers, a small mafia family with a long friendship with Firo and an understanding with the Camorra; and the mixed group of pilgrims from 1711, who spoke to a devil and unleashed an amazing gift and a terrible curse upon themselves.
Baccano is a very easy read. It engages the audience with the fantastical and exciting story, but also with the wonderful character writing and interactions. For fans of the anime, the events aren’t anything new, but there are still numerous things to enjoy about the novel. This is a series for people tired of current isekai or high school settings within light novels; there’s nothing quite like Narita’s use of switching POVs, and he’s established himself as an author with a very unique and enjoyable voice. The translation on this particular book maintains the easy readability and flow of the novel perfectly, and I commend Yen On for their beautiful hardcover and dust jacket release.
For both new and existing fans, Baccano is a must-read. Come join the ruckus!
Gee’s Rating: Highly Recommended
You can purchase this book online via sites like Amazon (available in hardcover or as an ebook) and Book Depository (which offers free worldwide shipping). These are affiliate links, so a small percentage of sales goes toward this site.