Baccano!: 1932 Drug & The Dominoes

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Taylor Engel.

This was the final Baccano! light novel that was used in the 2007 anime adaptation, but even if you’ve seen the anime you should read this anyway, as it’s startling how much was left out and how much was changed. The anime needed a little bit more plot to add to its “let’s move back and forth between various time periods” style, and Eve’s subplot seemed to fit the bill. They had little to no use for Roy Maddock and his drug addiction, though, and so he was completely eliminated. Which is a shame, as while I have little use for Roy himself, who is not as interesting as virtually everyone else in this book, his girlfriend Edith is awesome, and having Roy also means we meet Kate Gandor, Keith’s wife – and actually hear Keith speak more than a few lines of dialogue!

Eve Genoard, younger sister to ne’er-do-well Dallas, is front and center on the cover, and I’d wager that she gets to have the hero’s journey here – as I said before, Roy is a bit too flat for me to really grant that to him. You could argue that Luck Gandor may also qualify – he’s worrying that he’s lost an essential humanity since becoming immortal, and it’s through dealing with Eve and the Runoratas that he comes to accept who he is now and realize that he hasn’t changed as much as he thought. He’s certainly unrepentant about what he did to Dallas – who, let’s remember, killed several men in the Gandor mafia clan – but he allows Eve a chance to possibly rescue Dallas from his watery grave. (Luck wonders why he was so soft-hearted, which is hilarious given that earlier in the book, all three Gandors were terrified about the idea of having to punish a woman, mafia-style, for betrayal – they end up giving her a haircut.)

This happens right after the last two books – in fact, the first third of it actually happens before the last two books, as it begins in late December 1931 and ends in early January 1932. And we do see characters from the previous books. Isaac and Miria have a smaller role than usual, but it’s their theft of the Gandor Family Fortune which sets most of this in motion, and their obsession with dominoes that gives us some more comedy, though I think it’s REALLY OBVIOUS that Narita only added that plot so he could use the title, which comes from Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominoes. Firo spends most of the book grumbling and whining, which seems a bit out of character for him. And we also see a few people who look like they’re being introduced for future books, such as Tick, the Gandor family’s smiling torture specialist, and Maria, a walking Mexican stereotype who can’t stop saying “amigo” but who is a lot of fun anyway. The Daily Days also get a lot more here to do than usual, and the one morally dubious guy of their bunch gets his after a ride on the Rail Tracer express (not lethal, for once).

That said, the book ends with a sort of tragedy, and it involves another immortal who appears throughout the book – Begg, who seems to have been one of Maiza’s group who became immortal back in 1711. He’s now the Runorata family drug expert, and spends his years trying to perfect a drug that will make everyone live in their own happy world, with no problems or worries. Given the halting, jittery way he speaks, you get the feeling he’s tested a lot of drugs on himself. And, despite an attempt at a heartwarming scene with Czeslaw (which is also rife with foreshadowing), in the end we see him at the start of the 21st century, burned out in an institution, barely able to respond to Maiza. Immortals may live forever, but they can still damage their mind, and it’s sad to see, even if you question the entire premise of what Begg wanted to achieve.

All in all, a good addition to the series, with lots of fun stuff happening, though I don’t think it hits the heights of Book 2. Next time we’ll move forward a bit – quite a bit – and see what the cast is up to in 2001.

Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Taylor Engel.

This is, as the prologue suggests, not so much the second part of a 2-arc set as it is “what was going on behind the scenes” for Book One. Various questions we had are answered, various characters who seemed to arrive and vanish for no reason now get a fully fleshed-out backstory. And we discover the true identity of the Rail Tracer, whose presence alone makes this book much, much more brutal and gore-filled than the previous two. Last time we had some horrible violence, but a lot of it was “come across the bloody remains of corpses”, and in this book we see why they came to be that way. And whereas in The Rolling Bootlegs Ennis was the one with the hero’s journey, and in the first Grand Punk Railroad it was Jacuzzi, this book’s most fascinating character is one who doesn’t really make any journey at all, because he’s already ten times better than everyone else. Yes, let’s talk about Claire.

It’s a shame that the cover art for this volume is so bad, but it makes Claire look almost like a cardboard cutout of a human, and after following him though half the book, that’s not really an unapt description. He’s the dark mirror to Ladd – and given that Ladd is a psychopath who murders for fun, that’s really saying something. Claire talks a lot towards the end of the book about solipsism, the idea that he is the most important thing in the world, and that since he can’t imagine what it would be like to either die or lose a battle, he never will. And he doesn’t. He’s not a hero – make no mistake about it, Claire is a nasty piece of work, and makes his living as a killer for hire – but at the same time he’s saving the day here, taking out the black suits and the white suits, falling in love with one girl while cheerfully admitting if she rejects him he’ll go after the other girl he also sort of fell for, and generally making your jaw drop as you go “cooool!”. Oh, except perhaps when he’s torturing Czeslaw.

Of all the characters introduced in this volume, Czes is probably the most tragic. The idea that in among all the people in 1711 who gained immortality was a young boy is chilling enough on his own, but then to spend years being roundly physically, emotionally and mentally abused by one of his fellow immortals is the icing on the cake, and Narita really does milk it for all it’s worth. He’s not subtle, either – when Czes is trying to make a deal with Ladd to have the other passengers on the train killed off, it explicitly mentions that he’s channeling the very man who abused him. The scenes with Czeslaw and Claire are there, I think, to remind you not to see Claire as too awesome or wonderful – they’re utterly dreadful. Still, the whole thing does lead to Czes managing to find hope in trusting other people, even if it means he has to put his life in their hands. First Isaac and Miria, who are of course all-loving and think nothing of falling off a train just to protect Czes – and then Maiza, who is the reason he’s there today, and possibly the most dangerous immortal of all, but around whom Czes can finally be the child that even after 200 years he still is to a large degree.

It is, of course, not all about guys murdering other guys, though you so get a lot of that. There are some amazing female characters here who get a chance to shine. We met Chané in Book 2, but here we see what’s driving her – a love for her father, who may be a terrorist but still shows her more love than any of the other black suits. We also finally confirm that she’s mute, which also allows her character to be more visually expressive than a ‘type’ like her would otherwise be. And of course we get Claire falling for her – it’s not clear if they’ll ever meet up (as Claire says, “meet me in Manhattan” is horribly vague), but it would be nice. As for Rachel, she’s the seemingly “normal” character here, even though she can nimbly crawl across the bottom of trains and save the day by rescuing everyone from the terrorists. She’s normal as she has the most normal reaction to everything going on within the train – sheer terror. Even Isaac and Miria, when presented with a pile of corpses last time, felt like they’d seen this sort of thing before. Rachel, on the other hand, is us, and her heartfelt plea to Claire towards the end of the book to sacrifice herself to stop all the other killing is wonderful, and it’s the one thing the anime cut that is deeply missed. Lastly, there’s Lua Klein, who is… still something of a cipher, but given a bit of internal monologue and a chat with the Grey Magician (also cut from the anime, mostly as he does very little other than stitch people up and give advice), we can empathize with her life choices and why she and Ladd really are deeply in love with each other.

I’ve gone on more than usual, but that’s because there’s simply so much to talk about. This is a short book – possibly the shortest in the series – and yet it’s rich in its development. Those who are fans of the series will enjoy picking out little bits and pieces that we’ve seen before, or setups for the next book. And it also has Isaac and Miria deciding the best present to cheer up Ennis is a young boy to be her little brother. Baccano! is as chaotic as ever, but also richly rewarding. Just… be prepared for a lot of blood. A *lot* of blood.

Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Taylor Engel.

I’ve mentioned before that some multi-volume arcs, particularly in light novels, can be seen as “the author just wrote a really long book and they had to cut it in half”. This book, the first of a two-part arc, is not that. We get the start of the story, but some characters are introduced and then forgotten as if they were meant to be minor characters, while others take center stage but then vanish 2/3 of the way through. But that’s OK, because this is one man’s journey to show some courage, defeat the bad guys because it’s the right thing to do, kiss his girlfriend for the first time ever, and also, yes, smuggle a huge amount of explosives into New York City in order to sell it off, as they are a gang as well – this is Baccano!, after all. Yes, this volume’s heroic journey is all about Jacuzzi Splot.

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If you find the name Jacuzzi Splot to be somewhat unusual, or even laughable, well, you aren’t alone. Many people in Baccano! have odd names, but Jacuzzi’s is pretty much the one that gets folks talking. More to the point, you may be wondering why this, the second book in a series, features almost none of the characters from the first book. Firo, Ennis, Maiza and the Gandors make brief cameos, but for the most part we meet a new huge cast, which luckily proceeds to get violently whittled down as the book goes on, though in general the named characters seem to do pretty well for themselves. It all takes place on a luxury train going from Chicago to New York City, which has the misfortune to be taken over by a) black-suited terrorists who profess they’re trying to get their leader, Huey Laforet, released; b) white-suited psychopaths, led by a mobster’s nephew, who are here to kill people because it’s fun, and c) the aforementioned delinquent gang, the closest we get to good guys here.

We also get Isaac and Miria, who are the thread that draws the two books together. They’re on the train as well, having decided to rob a mafia gang in order to buy Ennis an expensive present to cheer her up, because that’s the sort of people they are. As always, they’re hilarious, but as with the first book, the novel gives them occasional hidden depths, such as Isaac’s rather subdued reaction to a cabinful of corpses, as if he’s used to this. They’re at their best when inspiring others, though, particularly Jacuzzi, who is the sort to take crappy lines like “there’s a gun… in everyone’s heart!” and take them completely seriously. In general, the new characters hold up well and deserve your attention. Goose is an exception. As a villain, he’s very flat, and probably the weakest part of the book, mostly as he pales next to the evil flamboyance that is Ladd Russo, who is jaw-droppingly horrible in a riveting way. Also, due to the nature of the book, several characters seem to be very underdeveloped, namely the unfortunate child Czeslaw Meyer, and Ladd’s passive to the point of being disturbing girlfriend Lua.

So yes, like Jacuzzi at the end of this book, the reader still has questions. Why did Ladd suddenly disappear midway through the book? Why was a child cut to pieces and tied to the bottom of the train? Who is the Grey Magician and why was he cut from the anime completely? And if the woman in fatigues isn’t the Rail Tracer, who is? (The anime reader is at a disadvantage here, knowing the answers to all but one of those questions. The book reads better if you don’t know the true identity of several people.) We will find out in the third book, which tells the same events as the second but from several different perspectives. In the meantime, smile with Jacuzzi, laugh with Isaac and Miria, and wonder who the hell Claire Stanfield really is.