Zaregoto is filled with fun characters and snappy dialog. Unfortunately, it also suffers under its uneven pacing and ridiculous plot twists.
Translated by:Greg Moore
Adapted by:Greg Moore
What They Say
It's the vacation of a lifetime, a trip to a remote island filled with geniuses - and murder.
On Wet Crow's Feather Island, a tiny speck in the Sea of Japan, lives Akagami Iria, the exiled daughter of a powerful family. Born into great wealth, she was a princess of the highest pedigree - until she was cut off by the leader of the Akagami Foundation. For the last five years, she's lived on Feather Island with her maids. But she hasn't been alone. She has invited the best minds Japan has to offer to come and stay with her.
And so 19-year-old college student Ii-chan and his best friend, computer genius Kunagisa Tomo, find themselves as Iria's guests at her elaborate mansion. Surrounded by fascinating women - a chef, a fortune-teller, a scholar, and an artist, not to mention his own friend Tomo - Ii-chan is feeling a little overmatched intellectually. But the sudden discovery of a grisly murder sends the island into shock. Ii-chan discovers that he does possess a bit of genius: the ability to discover what is real and what is fake... who is who they claim to be - and who is a killer.
When I first picked up the book, I was surprised by how thin it was: though Volume 1 of Zaregoto packs a hefty 330+ page count, it wasn't noticeably thicker than a standard 192-page manga volume. The book's thinness immediately made sense once I opened the book, since Del Rey has printed it on very thin paper stock. It gives the book a cheap and flimsy feel, but since the print quality is otherwise OK I'm not going to complain too much.
The book is sparsely illustrated, with the prologue and each of the nine chapters opening with a one-page black-and-white illustration of one or more of the novel's thirteen characters. In addition, there are full-color illustrations on each of the covers, with Kunagisa Tomo on the front cover and the semi-anonymous narrator on the back cover.
The only extras are a two-page afterword from author Nisioisin and two-paragraph "About the Creators" page.
For the most part, Greg Moore's translation reads very well. The English script uses a mix of staccato, short-form paragraphs and longer blocks of text with more complex sentence structures. Even during these shorter blocks of text, the script reads smoothly and avoids the choppiness that many other light novel translations fall victim to.
I was particularly impressed by the script's mostly accurate use of specialized computer terminology; it's a small touch, but as someone who makes his living working with computers, it's always appreciated when somebody gets it right for once. (On the other hand, as I discuss in the Comments section, I have a bone to pick with the way the story misuses a mathematical law as a major plot device. But that's obviously Nisioisin's original script at fault rather than Moore's translation.)
Contents: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
On the surface, Zaragoto's premise -- a cast of eleven women in their late teens and early twenties stranded together on an island with a nineteen-year-old male narrator -- sounds like the setup for a bad harem comedy. Surprisingly, though Zaregoto does include some elements of the harem genre (namely, female characters whose relationship to the aloof male lead range from indifferent to flirtatious) it's first and foremost a murder mystery. The story abruptly starts on the third of day of the group's excursion to the isolated Wet Crow's Feather Island, home of the wealthy outcast Akagami Iria and her team of four maids. Akagami has invited five of the greatest geniuses in the world, plus a small entourage of their assistance that includes the narrator, to stay with her so that she bask in their collective brilliance. The narrator (whose full name is never given, but is referred to as "Ii-chan" in the dialog) spends the majority of this third day wandering around the island mansion and entering in conversation with Akagami and her guests.
The real "meat" of the story doesn't come until about 100 pages in, when Akagami's guests discover the headless corpse of the genius painter Ibuki Kanami at the start of the trip's fourth day. Being the bizarre and stubborn person that she is, Akagami completely dismisses any suggestions of calling in the police force, and instead promises to call the famed private investigator Aikawa Jun to the island. In the meantime, none of Akagami's guests are permitted to leave the island, giving them a double incentive for solving the crime on their own: not only will they satisfy their intellectual curiosity, but they'll be saving their own skin from the murderer who hides among them. Within a few hours, an impromptu investigation led by Ii-chan points to the all-around genius Sonoyama Akane as the primary suspect. Although he's not completely convinced Akane is guilty, he advocates imprisoning her anyway as foolproof protection against the murderer -- if guilty, she wouldn't be able to get at the other guests; and if innocent, the real murderer probably wouldn't shift the blame away from her by striking again.
Nevertheless, after taking some petty cracks at analyzing the evidence with the assistance of his socially challenged friend/ward Kunagisa Tomo, Ii-chan starts feeling pangs of guilt over imprisoning Akane without concrete proof. As a sort of mea culpa, he spends the evening sitting outside of her room and having a heart-to-heart chat with her through the locked door. Akane manages to intuit during this conversation that something's going on between Ii-chan and Tomo, thus clumsily introducing a tacked-on romantic subplot between the two. Too bad for Ii-chan that the conversation does little to alleviate his guilt -- which is compounded the next morning when Akane's decapitated corpse is found in her room.
After enjoying the xxxHolic novel excerpt in Faust and hearing such high praise for Nisioisin's other works, I can't help but feel underwhelmed by what he's delivered in Volume 1 of Zaregoto. There're certainly bits of it that I liked: the characters are -- with the exception of the spineless Ii-chan -- colorful and varied, spawning some very entertaining interactions among them. The frequent head-butting between Ii-chan and the fortune-teller Himena Maki is a lot of fun, especially once Maki decides to start taking personal offense to his narration/inner monologue.
So what went wrong? Simply put, the beginning and the ending. Nisioisin's decision to install twelve quirky characters on the island and immediately introduce them all to the reader makes the first 100 pages of Zaregoto far too dense for its own good. Doled out in appropriately sized doses and spread out among the entire text of the novel, I would've had no problem with the amount of exposition and dialog that Nisioisin develops here. Unfortunately, because he presents all of this at the novel's outset, it turns into a tremendous information overload that makes the first act a lot of work to slog through. It doesn't help that the characters are introduced in a seemingly endless parade of conversations, ensuring that virtually nothing of consequence happens in the first third of the story.
My second issue with Zaregoto comes when the solution to the murder mystery is eventually unveiled. Though Ii-chan's explanation of what happened works at a high level, as he begins filling in the details it becomes obvious how much of killer's plan is completely absurd. At one point Nisioisin stops trying to justify the most unlikely of the coincidences altogether, instead deferring to a law of probability as an authorial cop-out. (To add insult to injury, I'm pretty sure the way he invokes the law isn't even mathematically sound.) By the time Nisioisin explains the killer's complete motive in the epilogue, the narrative reads as if he laid out the entire mystery on paper first and then just cobbled together a random solution as an afterthought. I'll give him a few points for the sheer determination it takes to pass off something this silly with a straight face -- but sorry, I stopped buying it around the time Ii-chan described how the killer got out of Akane's room. Granted, he might just be having some fun at the expense of believability; I really doubt it, though, considering the absolutely humorless and clinical way that he discusses the crime.
In spite of my harping on the sections that open and conclude the book, Zaregoto isn't an awful read ... it just requires a willingness out of the reader to tolerate some significant flaws. The novel's middle section, where most of the action is concentrated, is solidly written; even within the less-than-stellar opening and closing acts, there're enough interesting bits to give the reader an idea of what Nisioisin was aiming for (though in my opinion he often fell short of the mark). The fact that there are substantial parts of the book that work well just serves to make Zaregoto's deficiencies all the more frustrating.