The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr
Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
09 October 2013
There is more than a passing air of mystery surrounding Caleb Carr's latest novel, The Legend of Broken. According to Carr, a historian as well as a novelist, he found the manuscript that forms the main part of this book while he was carrying out some research in the papers of Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century historian. Carr, or perhaps I should say "Carr," claims to have known already of the manuscript, thanks to various references in Gibbon's own correspondence, but professes himself startled to have discovered the manuscript itself, forlorn, uncatalogued, and most important of all, so far unpublished.
The manuscript is a translation into English, by an unknown hand, of an early medieval chronicle. It tells the story of a revolution in a lost city kingdom which flourished in what is now central Germany, around the Brockenberg, some time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the historical European kingdoms with which we are now familiar—a period which is, conveniently, very poorly documented. Even more conveniently, "Carr" reveals that Hitler and his advisers were aware of the Broken Manuscript's existence and attempted to eradicate all written and archaeological evidence of the city. Needless to say, the city of Broken has vanished without a trace, although the mountain's name stands as a memorial of sorts.
Gibbon himself gave a partially annotated copy of the manuscript to his colleague, Edmund Burke, author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, who in turn advised Gibbon to suppress the manuscript, given the political climate in the late eighteenth century. This means that The Legend of Broken is the first scholarly edition to be published: were we in any doubt about this, "Carr" provides an extensive apparatus of endnotes (though one can't help noting that the text lacks a bibliography or any reference as to where the manuscript original might be found) and includes (unreferenced) extracts from the correspondence between Gibbon and Burke.
Carr has previously shown a taste for pastiche—he wrote an authorized novel-length Sherlock Holmes story, The Italian Secretary (2005), while Killing Time (2000), although supposedly a near-future thriller, owed more in tone to Jules Verne than to any contemporary sf novelist—but whereas Carr writes respectable nineteenth-century prose, as The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1998) both demonstrate, his grasp of Gibbonian English is rather shakier. The Broken Manuscript itself bears no resemblance to any translation of a medieval chronicle or romance that I have ever encountered, in form or language, though doubtless the scholar "Carr" might account for the former by suggesting the rise, fall, and total disappearance of an oral literary tradition between the fourth and tenth centuries, with The Legend of Broken emerging as the sole surviving written text. Myself, I might be more inclined to suggest that "Carr" himself was the victim of a hoax, given the contemporary tone of the language and the first-person narrator's pervasive presence in the text.
So, we might regard The Legend of Broken as a carefully executed academic jeu d’esprit, sufficiently well thought out to survive cursory examination but unlikely to withstand a more robust scrutiny. The moment one begins to ask serious questions, the conceit's fragility becomes perfectly obvious, which is of course all part of the fun. This is not a full-blown hoax but a highly enjoyable piece of scholarly entertainment. Except, as is evident from a number of reviews, the joke was not necessarily appreciated by those readers who approached The Legend of Broken as a conventional fantasy. So, let us strip away the academic pretense, the endnotes, the letters, the scholarly explanations, and treat the text simply as a story.
Even then, it is something out of the ordinary. The story's length suggests an epic, which would of course be in keeping with the manuscript's supposed provenance, but immediately, we encounter yet another narrative voice, an omniscient observer, writing in the continuous present tense, yet clearly recording events after Broken has vanished. This narrator is, it turns out, writing down a series of visions he (and in historical terms, I think we must assume the narrator is male) has experienced, intending to conceal the manuscript because his family already believes he is mad. Were this not strange enough already, the visionary language is redolent of nineteenth-century high fantasy, William Morris or William Hope Hodgson rather than Hildegard of Bingen, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, it quickly settles down to something rather more contemporary in feel.
Broken, as already noted, is a small city-kingdom, somewhere in central Germany which has, despite the arrival of Christianity in the region, continued to worship the golden god, Kafra, a god who encourages the worship of wealth and bodily perfection. Kafra is a god who thus smiles on rampant capitalism and rewards those who reward themselves. The search for physical human perfection seems to have prompted the God-Kings of Broken to initiate a program of selective breeding and to banish all those humans who show any sign of imperfection—stunted growth, twisted limbs or anything else of which Kafra does not approve. That there are so many bodily imperfections among Broken's elite is obviously indicative of inbreeding (and it seems to be no coincidence that the worship of Kafra has a flavor of the Ancient Egyptian about it) but so far this fact has not been realized.
Those people banished from the city have, over the generations, formed a community that lives in Davon Wood. The people of Broken call them the Bane, and fear them because they are implacable in their search for revenge. The Bane refer to the inhabitants of Broken as the Tall, and yes, they are absolutely implacable in their desire for retribution. However, this is to simplify a very complex situation, in which political, religious, and commercial interests have become intertwined over the years. As the God-King has devoted himself to his own particular interests, the merchants have more or less taken control of the day-to-day running of the town, even maintaining their own militia. But as the novel opens, a point of crisis has been reached, as farmers refuse to let the merchants drive down prices any further. The head of the merchants, Lord Baster-kin, recognizes that something needs to be done to counter both this and the increasing degeneracy of the God-King’s rule, and has formulated a complex plan that involves a war against the Bane, and also a coup within the city.
For the Bane, the realization that something is wrong begins with an outbreak of plague in their community and the decision that three of their number, Keera, Veloc, and Heldo-Bah should be sent to find the sorcerer believed to live deep in Davon Wood, who may be able to help. The leader of Broken's army, Yantak Arnem, comes to realize that the orders given him by the city make no sense, and indeed might almost have been designed to ensure his death, while back in the city, Arnem's wife, Isadora, a healer of some note, has come to realize that the outbreak of plague currently infecting the district where she lives is not what it seems.
The plot is surprisingly slight considering its apparent intricacy, and the many pages it takes to tell. Whilst the motives of some of the parties are shadowy, and indeed never fully explained, the events themselves move with great precision and few surprises, like a well-oiled machine. Characters—the Bane, in particular—have many long conversations in which they tell one another about what is happening; there is a good deal of detailed descriptions of their actions but there is a rarely any sense of dramatic tension. The parts of the novel which are most successful are undoubtedly those which involve the army, perhaps reflecting Carr's scholarly background in military history, although the Bane's use of guerrilla warfare is equally well described. As to the rest, Carr often seems reluctant to let go of a scene, particularly if it involves a lot of dialogue. The frequent arguments between Caliphrestos, the mysterious sorcerer, and Heldo-Bah become as tedious as Caliphrestos claims to find Heldo-Bah (in fact, the irrepressible Bane is one of the brighter points in the novel) while Keera's ongoing reverence and/or obsequiousness to anyone who represents authority rapidly becomes tiresome.
On the other hand, Carr's portrayal of Arnem and his family feels convincing, and one senses he has an emotional investment in creating them. Of Caliphresto's relationship with the panther Stasi, legendary beast of Davon Wood, I am less convinced, not least because I felt we were moving into territory more frequently worked by Anne McCaffrey's dragons. Throughout, the pace of the storytelling remains slow and steady, so although this is a novel about adventure, it is not an adventure novel. It might be a psychological novel except that we have little access to the minds of the most psychologically interesting characters, namely Baster-kin and the God-King. It is certainly a moral novel, in that mostly villains die, with a mild leavening of "good" characters, just to reinforce how despicable the villains really are, but death comes mainly as words on a page, not as an experienced emotion.
But neither is this a fantasy novel, not in the accepted sense. What seems to the Bane to be magic is, as Caliphrestos keeps pointing out, science. A man who has traveled widely throughout the Europe with which readers will be more familiar, he has amassed a great store of knowledge from books. Isadora, as a healer, has knowledge based more on direct empirical evidence, but they easily reach similar conclusions as to the source of the plague. The Bane know about pottery, metalwork, and other artisanal skills but their knowledge of medicine is less secure. This is not to say they are ignorant; it is more indicative of where their efforts have been directed in establishing a viable woodland community. A healthy skepticism about magic and religion pervades the novel; though both the Bane and the Tall possess a powerful priestly class, they are frequently represented as being out of touch with the material needs of their people, surrounding themselves with luxury. Commercial consequences play a significant part in the story and this is the only novel I have ever encountered that considers the consequences of storing rye for long periods of time before consuming it (I wonder what it says about me that I recognized early on where that particular tendril of plot was going, and I was not disappointed). This novel, in some respects, seems closest to the work of K. J. Parker.
Although I admired its scholarly conceit when I began this novel, I was initially unconvinced by the story itself, yet I stuck with it, not out of a reviewer's obligation but because I became genuinely intrigued to see what Carr would do with it. In the end, I don't think he did as much with it as a fantasy reader might hope for in terms of storytelling, but I wonder if this was actually his intention. Looking back over Carr's other novels (excluding his first, Casing the Promised Land , which I've not seen, but which Carr informally disavows as a youthful roman à clef, something to be got out of the system and forgotten) I have the sense that he has always been interested with experimenting with genre, though with mixed results.
The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness were historical crime novels about serial killers, set in New York's Gilded Age, and memorable as much for their loving descriptions of the city's topography and the cast of historical figures given walk-on parts as for their plots, although both were solidly written. Similarly, Carr took great pains to show his team carrying out research in the available literature on abnormal psychology and making use of the information gained rather than speculating airily in a way that played to the modern readership's knowledge of later serial murderers. All this gave the novels a texture that was sadly lacking in his next two novels, making them seem shallow by comparison. There was something deeply embarrassing about Killing Time's failure to combine the gadget-ridden style of Jules Verne with the plot of a pacy near-future thriller, and authorized as The Italian Secretary might have been, it was still among the most boring Holmes pastiches I've encountered, horribly self-conscious in its attempt to be more Conan Doyle than Conan Doyle (though, in fairness, it is hard to improve on The Hound of the Baskervilles) while contriving to be utterly unmemorable.
That early attention to detail is once again evident in The Legend of Broken even though the scholarly window dressing is more obviously fictional than in The Alienist. Carr clearly seems much more at home when he has a strong foundation of research on which to build his narratives, and if that means writing the research himself, so be it. Certainly, Carr's endnotes lend The Legend of Broken an extra sheen of verisimilitude even if, on occasion, he slightly overplays his hand.
It also seems as though Carr is still testing different genre forms, trying to find the one that best suits his interests, which seem roughly to be military history, the nature of family and community, and why it is that people can behave in such terrible ways for what they believe to be the common good. One might ask why, having hit his stride with The Alienist and its sequel, he needs to move on to other genres, but while turning out more Lazlo Kreisler novels might indeed be lucrative it is easy to see that it could become creatively stifling. Which is not to say that I think Carr has found an entirely satisfactory niche with The Legend of Broken, but the past undoubtedly suits him better than the future.