You know me, I’m a sucker for a fictional jaunt through the Jazz Age, and if there are compelling characters and supernatural shenanigans, all the better. The Baccano! anime stole my heart and blew my mind when I watched it many years ago, drawing me into a madcap world of gangsters, con artists, alchemists, and eccentric thieves all caught up in one big interlocking adventure—think Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels but set in Prohibition-era America and revolving around the elixir of immortality (not that everyone who gets sucked into this chaotic caper knows this…). Intrigued to see how the exhausting but exhilarating nature of the TV series translated onto the page, I recently picked up the first volume of the novels it was based on, and spiralled back down into this world of jazzy, magical nonsense, kind of falling in love with it all over again in the process.
Light novels aren’t really something I’ve interacted with before, save for a dip into the unofficial translation of the Fate/Zero ones, which I did not finish because I realised I was reaching a point where I knew what was going to happen and had no desire to relive the deaths of my favourite characters in that pithy, matter-of-fact prose. Basically, everything I know about light novels as a medium I have learnt tangentially from reading Frog-kun, and this includes that what exactly a “light novel” is can be a tricky thing to pin down anyway. As with most genres, it comes down to marketing and mode of publication more than anything else. A light novel series can be about anything, but due to what gets published and popularised under that banner they’ve become associated with a certain set of tropes and demographics—for example, you might consider Baccano! a step away from the “typical” light novel since it’s not about average teenaged geek boys getting transported to a fantasy world.
In any case, I’m going to keep these reviews focussed on the Baccano! story as it is, rather than comparing it to this or that within or outside of the light novel industry—maybe if I start reading LNs more widely I can gather some broader context and can rebrand posts like this “Alex’s Adventures in Light Novels”. But for now let’s zero in: if Baccano! is not about teenaged geek boys, what is it about? It’s… a difficult question to answer. I mean, is it about a bunch of alchemists gaining the power of immortality and setting out to destroy each other? Is it about a homunculus experiencing feelings and motivations of her own for the first time and trying to figure out what to do? A young man’s promotion in the ranks of the Camorra? The life and crimes of two ditzy, disguise-loving thieves? One small-time crook lashing out for revenge and ending up having a really, really bad day?
It’s about all these things and more. As with the anime, the Baccano! novels have no set protagonist but instead swing between sets of characters, watching them go about their business and delighting in the chaos that results from the different plotlines crashing into or overlapping with one another. The big difference between the anime and the books is that the books are linear where the show is not, or rather, the anime takes this whole “multiple simultaneous storyline” thing and turns it up to 11 by showing you three different arcs at once. To borrow Dee’s words, the anime adaptation “throws the first four Baccano LNs in a blender and hits ‘puree’”, leaving the show and the books as two very, very different iterations of the same set of stories.
I will say having the first volume be a self-contained story set over a small space of time was much more coherent than diving into the anime and having to comprehend several different simultaneous timelines at once, but I also found myself missing certain characters and stories that, in this linear version, won’t appear until a couple of volumes in. That’s entirely my fault for being an anime-first reader, though. Volume one—The Rolling Bootlegs—works wonderfully as a standalone glimpse into this chaotic world of criminals and immortals, the interconnecting tangle of characters and storylines boxed in quite neatly by a tried-and-true framing device.
The closest thing we have to a main point of view character is a modern-day Japanese photographer who travels to New York and gets mugged, after which he ends up chatting to a mysterious and charming gentleman from an organised crime family. This man confesses to being immortal and offers to tell the unnamed photographer his story, which then reels us back in time, first to 1711, when the elixir of life is discovered (a flashback we don’t get until quite late in the anime, mind you), and then to a very strange 24-hour period in 1930.
Gradually, but by no means with slow and dull pacing, our omnipresent narrator swings from storyline to storyline as they bump into each other, these parallel threads becoming increasingly knotted as the book goes on, and practically tripping everybody up when it reaches its climax. The novel does its best to not be confusing, but also doesn’t spoon-feed you, and lets you put the puzzle pieces together and guess how things are going to go, rewarding you with a few genuinely glorious “oh shit” moments where you, the reader with information the characters don’t have, can watch the plot threads knit together from your high omnipresent place above them all. This detached and slightly wry narration style also leads to some great establishing character moments, where all we can do is watch as the scene before us is laid out and the stars—if not the “protagonists”—make an entrance.
Yes, trying to pick the “main character” of Baccano! is as foolish an endeavour as trying to define the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. As is to be expected from a story about organised crime and people selfishly trying to live forever, most characters are at least a little bit of an asshole. The narrator simply presents them as they are and invites you to make your judgements and pick your favourites (mine was the emotionally-confused homunculus Ennis). Though there’s one character who’s definitely evil-shaped, not having a clear-cut villain adds a level of intrigue that hooks you and makes you even more eager to see how all these people’s lives clash, and who will come out on top at the end… something only made more complicated by the fact that some of these guys are immortal. And not always the ones you’d expect, either…
Alas, I can’t ramble on about my favourite moments without spoiling things, especially since everything that happens becomes so interconnected that describing some events means describing the whole chain of them that goes right back to the start. I will say, though, that I had a great time and finished the book in two sittings (maybe the easy, quick readability is where the “light” in “light novel” comes in? I’m not actually sure), and am eagerly awaiting the next instalment which will expand the world and continue the shenanigans. Stay tuned!