Matt Kamen finds little to be proud of in this perfunctory light-novel spin off
If anyone needed further proof that Attack on Titan
is a cultural juggernaut, they'd only have to take a glance at the bookshelves. While Hajime Isayama's original manga most notably spawned the breakthrough anime series, there are also numerous spin-off and prequel manga, artbooks, and light novels by a host of other creators, all drafted in to craft as much material set in and around the world as possible.
Before the Fall
, set 70 years before the main series, falls into the latter category, though it somewhat confusingly shares its title with a manga. The comic version actually adapts the second and third volumes of this novel series, but made it to English language publication before this. I'd hate to second guess publishers, but the probable reason for that is that author Ryo Suzukaze's introductory volume is incredibly dull.
Suzukaze zooms in on a singular aspect of the popular core series – the now-iconic 3D maneouvre gear that the Survey Corps use to swing around and combat Titans – and delves into their creation. It's like novelising the creation of the combustion engine, but without the fascinating real-world history or impact to delve into. Instead, we follow Angel Aaltonen, wunderkind inventor and eventual creator of the versatile devices.
Working for the Survey Corps' research department, Angel's successful weapon designs to date have won him favour with his superiors, though he himself is dissatisfied. Although Suzukaze tries to present this as dedication on Angel's part, wanting his creations to be perfect in order to save as many lives as possible, he only ever comes across as churlish. He's simply an unappealing lead, ranging from stoic at best to grumpy and unlikeable at worst. Even as the story progresses, taking in an expedition beyond the wall and some genuinely thrilling action scenes – the capture of a Titan for research purposes stands out, both for its execution and the borderline horrific treatment the humans involved inflict on the creature – there's rarely any point of connection with the protagonist.
While it's possible Ko Ransom's translation contributes to the unflattering impression of Angel, it can't account for the plodding progression and laughable violence. Painfully stilted dialogue (sample: "Are you sure this isn't some kind of incredibly backhanded insult?") couples with gory scenes that tip the delicate balance from disturbing to plain comical. And these problems are evident straight away – a prologue seeing a rain of severed Corpsmen's heads being thrown over the outermost wall of humanity's enclave feels campy and laughable rather than the moment of terror that Suzukaze is so clearly going for. The occasional art pages by Thores Shibamoto are often the sole point of interest during very dry chapters.
There are some good ideas seeded throughout, such as the sense of fatalism the inhabitants of Shiganshina District have, knowing that they're living as essentially bait for the Titans, or explorations of the self-absorbed politics that govern the human cities. Indeed, in dealing with a level of bureaucracy that champions short-sighted safety over finding a way to rid the world of Titans, it's almost understandable why Angel is so truculent. If only he had some other redeeming qualities.
But the biggest problem Before the Fall
has is a resounding sense of pointlessness. In Isayama's manga, the 3D maneouvre gear is a means to an end, a way to provide a sense of extreme motion as the regular sized humans flit around the Titans in significantly outmatched combat. Their origins aren't inherently interesting enough to build a story around, and robbed of the visual impact of seeing them in use, this book lacks any real thrill factor. A novel for the most hardcore of Attack on Titan
fans only, those who want to delve into the minutiae of the world and explore every facet of its continuity.
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is published by Vertical.