Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Legend of Broken

Title: The Legend of Broken
Author: Caleb Carr
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780812984521
Pages: 752

While some fantasy/sci-fi books seem to have been weaved almost by magic, their author seemingly doing little more than trying to follow the nib held by a mystical hand, other works appear to have been cut from a very different cloth. Caleb Carr's books are the result of years and years of reading and digesting history, and boy, doesn't all that learning show. When the place and time are relatively static and confined, as in his stunning novel, The Alienist, the result is hard to resist, detail upon detail building on top of one another to create a tale so utterly real, you feel the necessity to imbibe every word and phrase.

But when the landscape is less enclosed, as in the 8th century Germania across which The Legend of Broken sprawls and tumbles, the effect can be very different. Here, it's more akin to a master model-maker showing you the intricate world they've lovingly created, and then insisting on illuminating you about every last detail, when, really, all you want is for them to tell you a damn good story. So historically accurate does Carr wish The Legend of Broken to be, he even makes up a sub-story about the author having discovered the 'manuscript' for this book while poking around in the correspondence of 18th century historian Edward Gibbon. He maintains the semi-serious tone throughout the book, bolstering the work with endnotes and letters, and the story constantly breaks off to inform us of some 'important' nugget of information. We're left guessing as to how seriously we're meant to take this. Ultimately, I found it a little gimmicky, and Carr needs to remember that the story always comes first.

For all the surface complexity, the story underneath the ornamentation is relatively straightforward. The plot follows the tense stand-off between various inhabitants of Broken, an early medieval city-state, and the Bane, a community created by the outcasts from the city, dwarvish people who have been ravaged by plague, the Bane seeks to take advantage of the chaos to seize back the city. Despite being restricted in size, the Bane have some cunning minds in their midst. They also have the wits of the enigmatic magician Caiphrestos and the legendary panther, Stasi, a relationship that Carr plays with constantly.

The story, then, is relatively simple, even if the dense writing tries to obscure that. The real problem, though, is that much of the texture comes from the copious historical details. The psychological depth, in fact, is rather lacking. The best stories have an inner tension which the author expertly controls and manipulates, constantly tightening and untightening at key moments to keep us engaged and feeling the characters thoughts, motivations and emotions. Carr, though, doesn't know when to probe and when to hold off, and the book lurches between overdone and over-simplified.

The Legend of Broken certainly isn't uninteresting to read, and it's the questioning of how an ancient community might have developed is rather intriguing. However, Carr really needs to allow us to feel the characters rather than treating us to large chunks of exposition posing as dialog. For a book this long and this detailed, the actual substance is surprisingly thin.