Recently I did a review of a licensed game based on a book franchise, so it makes sense to now do a licensed book based off a video game franchise, right? Right? ...No? Well, whatever. Today I'm gonna to be discussing the first Ace Attorney novelization by Takase Mie, Turnabout... uh, Idol.
Well, there's only one idol, and her trademark item is a giant knife, so I guess that part ended up as good as I could hope.
The book begins at a mall where Trucy is performing a magic show together with a stand-up comic and the titular idol. The comic is discovered dead in his dressing room, and the idol is arrested on suspicion of murder. Phoenix takes the case, proving (spoilers) the idol's innocence and the true murderer's identity. If this sounds like a standard Ace Attorney case, that's because this book recreates the Ace Attorney experience almost perfectly.
First, Turnabout Idol follows traditional Ace Attorney case structure. This sounds simple enough, but is actually quite impressive. The author has total control in a traditional detective story, and so the detective can identify the solution at the end regardless of the quality or quantity of clues. But Ace Attorney is a video game based on constructing and proving a case in court. Consequently, the important part is not there mere act of arriving at the solution, but the process and thread of logic by which you reach the end. This is both because Ace Attorney is interactive, so you need to give the player something to do and make sure they can do it, and because the courtroom setting requires it.
Turnabout Idol is still a novel, so Takase could have ended up with a traditional detective story structure, but she manages to instead successful emulate Ace Attorney structure. The prosecution establishes the case against the defendant, and then Phoenix dismantles it by systematically finding contradictions in and discrediting witnesses's testimonies. Each contradiction has a reason behind its existence, fairly clued evidence showing the contradiction, and an explanation that progresses the case. Creating a regular mystery is hard enough, but adding all the additional requirements of the Ace Attorney structure makes it that much more difficult, so Takase definitely gets kudos for successfully crafting a mystery with that structure.
The other main way Turnabout Idol mimics the traditional Ace Attorney games is in tone and characters. The book features several canon characters (as you can probably guess from the cover), and they all retain their original personalities. In fact, I think I actually liked them better here than in Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice! (Seriously, Phoenix acts like a parent and thinks about Trucy more here than in Turnabout for Tomorrow where she was literally kidnapped by a terrorist.) The only bad thing that can be said is that Apollo, Athena, and Edgeworth don't do anything important, and are clearly there because only because they're Apollo, Athena, and Edgeworth. But Apollo and Athena are members of the Wright Anything Agency, so their presence still feels natural, and while Edgeworth's inclusion is egregious, it's also short.
Naturally, Phoenix & co. run into a variety of kooky, larger-than-life witnesses. They have a wide variety of personalities, and allow the book to properly balance between comic and serious moments as necessary. With true Ace Attorney style characters in a true Ace Attorney style structure, Turnabout Idol truly captures the spirit of the canon games.
But Turnabout Idol's greatest strength may also be its biggest weakness. It perfectly follows the games, yes, but perhaps to a fault. The Ace Attorney formula was developed for games, but Turnabout Idol is a novel, so there are some elements that were carried over that probably shouldn't have been, and some elements that couldn't be brought over, to the book's detriment.
As a video game with an anime style, Ace Attorney could afford to take some creative liberties, especially if it furthered the gameplay. I never felt anything off about Apollo's Perceive mechanic in the games, but when Turnabout Idol introduced it as a magical bracelet that told Apollo when a witness was lying, it felt bizarre and out of place in an otherwise serious novel. Adrian Andrews's infinite glasses cheat was a fun damage sprite that played on the sprite-based graphics of the games, but when a witness in Turnabout Idol pulled the same stunt, it again felt out of place (and unoriginal to boot).
Most notably, the investigations and testimonies are much more streamlined. In the games, the investigations and cross-examinations are where most of the actual gameplay reside, and so they have lots of content, with plenty of fun optional dialogue you can find. But here, everything is just reading down a set, linear path. In fact, in a book, going through multiple testimonies to uncover a witness's true testimony as compared to one does nothing but slow down the pace and add pages. Consequently, the investigations and cross-examinations move much quicker in Turnabout Idol than in the games. While this does keep the pace up, which I think is good, it also means we spend less time with each character, making them less developed and memorable. Without development for the characters and setting through the investigations and cross-examinations, Turnabout Idol ends up feeling like it has the form of Ace Attorney, but is missing part of the soul.
That being said, these end up being small speed bumps on an otherwise smooth ride. Turnabout Idol ticks all the checkboxes of a standard Ace Attorney case and no more, and so while the fact that it is the first Ace Attorney novelization is memorable, the case itself is not particularly noteworthy. When a franchise transitions into a new type of media, it's fantastic if it takes advantages of the unique traits of the new medium, but still fine if it just recreates itself in the new form. Turnabout Idol is "only" a decent Ace Attorney styled case--but a decent Ace Attorney case is still a fun and pleasurable adventure.
Turnabout Idol was published as a children's book, so the vocabulary is not too complex and all kanji have furigana, which makes it a smooth read. We also get a fair number of cool, manga-style cut-in illustrations throughout the book. Most importantly, the children's book label does not detract from the quality of the plot, which is a clever and fairly clued mystery plot. If you're actively looking for tricks, you may be able to figure out one of the larger tricks fairly early (and from that deduce the identity of the murderer), but there will still be plenty of other questions of who, how, and why to keep you guessing.
Speaking of "why," that's what I want to ask Takase in terms of the "why" behind the murder. It's by and far the weakest element of the book, and is essentially tacked on at the end. The motive relies on an incredulous series of coincidences and misunderstandings, and is completely disconnected from everything else in the story. The one good part about it being discrete is that it's easy to forget about and ignore, and doesn't drag down the rest of the book. Perhaps Takase had to keep the motive on the lighter side because it is a children's story, but you're already literally writing about murder, and I feel you can still make a compelling murder motive that's appropriate for children.
Okay, well, there is technically one other part of the book that's bad enough to give the motive a run for its money, and that's the cover. Look at it. Seriously, scroll back up to the top of the page and look at it. It's the official character art for all of the canon characters that appear in the story just slapped on there in whatever way. You could recreate it yourself in all of 10 seconds. They made plenty of original art for the illustrations in the book, so the fact that they didn't simply make one more for the cover is a bit puzzling. If you were going to make a cheap cash-grab licensed Ace Attorney book, this is the cover you would give it. But this just makes the fact that Turnabout Idol is actually a decently crafted story that much more enjoyable. After all, if you have to choose one part of the book to be lacking, the cover is definitely the best choice.
All in all, Turnabout Idol is a perfectly executed novelization of a standard Ace Attorney case. It isn't going to blow your mind like a finale case, but it will take you on a fun ride filled with all the things that made you fall in love with the games. If you like Ace Attorney at all and have the ability to do so, I definitely recommend giving Turnabout Idol a read.