One of the neatest, quickest shortcuts in the book reviewer’s repertoire is the trick where you try to distill your book down to one word. It’s the kind of approach that everyone understands, which is one reason why you see it so often. The other reason is that it works --- or, more accurately, works some of the time.
It’s really an unfair trick, though, especially with a big, sprawling, ambitious work like THE LEGEND OF BROKEN. The most appealing single word to describe Caleb Carr’s new epic fantasy novel is probably “scholarly.” That doesn’t approximate everything that the book is, not by a long shot, but at least it gives you something of an idea. Carr helpfully provides an introductory note explaining that The Legend of Broken is a fifth-century manuscript that has been translated into 18th-century English by the esteemed historian Edward Gibbon.
"There is much to admire about the level of research and detail that went into the book... As a scholarly work...THE LEGEND OF BROKEN is a noble attempt at recasting the high fantasy novel into something more than the pulpy nature of its origins."
This may not sound instantly appealing to your average reader, but as a piece of scholasticism, THE LEGEND OF BROKEN is something of an achievement. It is hard enough for a 21st-century author to sound like a forgotten and legendary fifth-century manuscript or an 18th-century historian; Carr manages to do both at the same time and to sustain the effect for hundreds of pages. The novel is also salted with copious footnotes on linguistic or scientific matters.
Readers who were enthralled by Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL will no doubt find a lot to like here. In both books, the focus is not so much on what happens within the novel, but how the author goes about telling the story, and the implicit commentary of the story on our own time. Carr is making an extended argument about the primacy of science over sorcery. He introduces a tribe of short and stunted characters, who appear at first to be little more than the elves or dwarves of standard fantasy fiction --- and then introduces a plausible scientific explanation of why they are as they are.
The smaller tribe, known as the Bane, are outcasts from the high mountain fortress of Broken, a great city teeming with wealth and privilege. Carr intertwines the long-term military conflict between the Bane and the forces of Broken with a story focusing on plague, disease, asymmetric warfare, and the primacy of scientific analysis in understanding each of these disparate elements.
Many of these elements --- especially given the fifth-century setting --- are grisly. As the story takes place slightly before the medieval period, there is no chivalry and little romance in Broken and the dark forest that surrounds it. THE LEGEND OF BROKEN is at its best and most gripping when it is dealing with fearsome tortures, vicious raiders or plague-maddened townspeople. Unlike your average fantasy novelist, Carr does nothing to sugarcoat or downplay the savagery and horror of this time period.
There is much to admire about the level of research and detail that went into the book, but it is fair to say that the overall air of didacticism that haunts the later chapters significantly detracts from the novel’s readability. Most of the characters are two-dimensional, and their language is similarly flat. Carr does the disservice of giving interesting characters names like “Heldo-Bah,” which is kind of a mean thing to do to the character, and giving uninteresting characters names like “Lord Rendulic Baster-kin,” which is kind of a mean thing to do to the reader. The pace of the novel is leaden at best and verges on the exasperating, while the prose is intelligent without being intelligible.
As a scholarly work --- and there’s that word again --- THE LEGEND OF BROKEN is a noble attempt at recasting the high fantasy novel into something more than the pulpy nature of its origins. Carr succeeds admirably in terms of making his work sound like it could be what it purports to be. But what it purports to be is very often dull, plodding and lifeless.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on November 30, 2012