Off the bat, this book is a bit of an oddball to review. Baccano! volume two is a completely new story to the self-contained first instalment, leaving New York and detailing the terrible adventure that takes place when a cacophony of robbers, mafioso, terrorists, and a monster of urban myth all find themselves trapped together on the same cross-continental train. It’s also the first of a two-parter, but it doesn’t drop its “to be continued” halfway through the story: it delivers the train safely (relatively speaking) to the station, and some characters out of the sprawling cast to their destination… and promises to loop back and retell the same sequence of events but from different perspectives in volume three. This is a slightly befuddling creative choice, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t create intrigue. And in the end, effective intrigue among all that larger-than-life chaos is what makes Baccano! good.
So, while volume two—The Grand Punk Railroad: Local—is very much and very deliberately not the whole story, let’s barrel ahead with Isaac-and-Miria-like gusto and talk about the pieces of the puzzle that we did experience. It sure is something, let me tell you.
Since the first novel was so well-contained, it’s the sensible decision to veer away and tell a new story dealing in the same world instead of simply picking up where volume one ended. And so, apart from Isaac and Miria who end up entirely in the wrong place at the wrong time again, volume two presents us with a whole new scenario and a whole new gallery of bastards to follow around. We’re introduced to all our new factions in rapid-fire at the beginning of the book: there’s a bloodthirsty and charismatic heir to a mafia family and his gang of equally murderous friends (the men in white); there’s a militant but comparatively classy and composed troop of criminals trying to free their “great leader” from arrest by the government in between mercilessly betraying each other (the men in black); and there’s the rag-tag group of orphans and immigrants who’ve banded together to form a bootlegging empire, almost by accident, under the leadership of a weepy eighteen-year-old and his pyromaniac girlfriend.
And, of course, there’s Isaac and Miria. As our main link to the first novel in the series and as the optimistic and off-the-wall characters that they are, the two theatrical thieves seem to be forming the emotional heart to the Baccano! brand. Honestly, nonsense as they are, they’re a unifying and genuinely uplifting nonsense that I wouldn’t trade for the world. The appeal of this ever-expanding cast only works if the characters are distinct, and they provide a beautiful contrast to the more dour and/or bloodthirsty members of the troupe that dance across the railway stage.
Having been introduced to all these new people, we then sit back and watch them all set out to rob/terrorise the same train for different reasons. As you would expect, it leads to a mess… and that’s before the wild card of the murderous cryptid known as the Rail Tracer shows up and starts dismembering people.
The mechanics and ingredients are much the same, but… to be honest, this volume felt half as sharp as the first one did. The chaos of switching between groups of colourful characters becomes downright blinding at times, and while it could just be my need for descriptive scene-setting prose talking, I found it hard to keep track of where everybody was in each wild snippet of action and picture what exactly was going on. While the confined setting of the moving train worked for drama and claustrophobia, it also led some downright repetitive parts where the characters move up and down the carriages over and over and back and forth, simply because this is not the kind of story where people sit still, but in a setting where they have nowhere else to go. It’s fitting that the ante is upped for the sequel, but there are just so many people to keep track of and so much madcap action with little rest in between.
It’s worth noting, both as a general observation and as a content warning, that the gore and violence increases by about 200% in this sequel, and only mostly because of the presence of the monstrous and mysterious Rail Tracer. Where the cryptid spares lives, Ladd Russo steps in to pick up the slack. He’s the leader of the men in white—you know, because blood stands out so well on white, and looks sooo pretty! His words, dear reader, not mine. Yeah, we’re in that kind of character’s world.
Here’s the thing: villains like Ladd Russo can get boring very quickly. He’s clearly unhinged and thrives on chaos, which can make him either genuinely terrifying or just lazily written, since you don’t need to come up with motivations or nuance for a character if you can shrug off all their actions as “well, he’s batshit crazy, isn’t he?” Ladd swings towards this, but honestly I was impressed that he retained some legitimate menace among his cartoonish blood-splashing. And yes, okay, that part where he takes down a bunch of dudes with machine guns, while only himself armed with his fists and the sheer intimidating power of his charisma, was pretty cool. And he made such a perfect contrast to the men in black—the other criminal faction trying to commandeer the train—and their calculating, softly-spoken leader, that you really needed someone like him to achieve balance. His fight with Chané, the singular woman in black, was very much an “unstoppable force meets an immovable object” sort of deal. Alas, both these characters vanish partway through the book as the focus shifts elsewhere, so I suppose I’ll have to wait until volume three to fully examine what became of them both plot and characterisation-wise.
The troupe that we do follow all the way to the end of their story are the ragtag found family of petty crooks led by Jacuzzi Splot, the only anime(ish) character I’ve come across yet with a name sillier than “Waver Velvet”. Jacuzzi makes yet another perfect contrast to Ladd and Goose, occupying an entirely different end of the spectrum to both of them and actually endearing himself to me quite a bit by the end. The author insists there is no protagonist, but Jacuzzi comes very close to being The Hero of this story, resolving to do what he can to save the people on the train because, even if he’s not A Good Person, he’s there, so he ought to do what he can. It’s this good-hearted determination that led him to quite accidentally becoming the ringleader of his gang of adopted outcasts, and I’m glad this got established and explored, otherwise I would have spent the whole book asking “why is this little crybaby the leader and not his bomb-loving deputy and love interest Nice?”
Volume two contains more women, numerically, than volume one did, but capable and varied as they are it still seems allergic to putting them in roles other than second-in-command or partner-in-crime. And this is not even to speak of Ladd’s dead-eyed fiancée Lua, who I legitimately forgot existed until I went back through to look at the illustrations. But, perhaps I ought to wait and see what we learn about Chané, and the mysterious “woman in coveralls” who is not the Rail Tracer but is a train-roof-climbing badass, to start having that conversation. We certainly haven’t had a female equivalent to Ladd Russo or Szilard Quates, is all I’m saying. But naturally, watch this space.
(Given that I, spoiled by the anime as I am, already know who the Rail Tracer is, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that so much of Firo and Ennis’ discussion about “Claire” turns out to be deliberately misleading and the infamous assassin is not, in fact, a lady. Still, given that I knew that, I could pick up some particularly fun foreshadowing in Isaac and Miria’s dialogue that I otherwise would have missed. Wisdom from the mouths of idiots…)
As I noted in the intro, the story closes raising far more questions than it answers. Though it’s a little out of left field, I think it’s really quite clever—it acknowledges that details would get lost in such chaos, and there’s always more going on than you think, enough to warrant a revisit of the events and look at them from different angles. The great mess of characters running up and down the train garnered more of a focus on the criminal underworld than the alchemical one, with only a few droplets of knowledge about how the two interweave. It almost lets you forget about the whole immortality thing that propelled the plot of the previous book, which is both a flaw and another source of intrigue: it makes you sit up and realise, when it does bring immortality back up, that everything is even more uncertain than you thought it was. Characters you thought were dead might not be. Characters you thought were immortal might just be super good at their job. The elixir of eternal life isn’t the motivating factor of this story so much as gently woven into the background, thickening an already soupy plot of criss-crossing character motivations.
So, Baccano! volume two is somewhat wild, bumpy, and all-over-the-place compared to the succinctness of the first novel, but I’m curious enough that I’m willing to press onwards to finish putting the story together. If nothing else, the lopsided way the two-parter is cut in half means I can put Jacuzzi and Nice from my mind knowing that they end up okay, and narrow my focus to the cast and questions that remain. Seriously, we just abandoned Ladd and Chané in the middle of a knife fight on top of a moving train. And we haven’t yet solved the mystery of who, or what, exactly this monstrous Rail Tracer is…