The central conceit of Caleb Carr’s new doorstop of a novel is that it’s an actual historical document, an anonymously authored manuscript documenting the downfall of a legendary German kingdom called Broken.
Carr made his reputation with the bestselling 1994 crime novel “The Alienist,’’ which captured New York circa 1896. “The Legend of Broken’’ ventures all the way back to the Dark Ages.
Carr, a military scholar of some repute, probably knows far more about the writings of that era than I do. Still, I doubt “The Legend of Broken’’ would pass muster with most historians. It’s clearly a fiction constructed by a modern writer well acquainted with both stock Hollywood characters and the sort of pro forma cliffhangers that propel most airport thrillers.
“Above all, consider this, before going on,” our nameless narrator intones. “You are embarked on a journey in which every cruelty, every unnatural urge, and every savagery known to men plays a part; yet there is compassion here, too, and also courage, although it is one of the peculiarities of the tale that each of these qualities appears when it is least expected.”
With advance PR like that, who needs reviewers?
The plot concerns an outbreak of plague that afflicts both the residents of the mountaintop city of Broken, and an exiled tribe of dwarfs called the Bane who live in the surrounding woods.
The action shifts between the military leader Sixt Arnem, who is dispatched to lead a campaign to exterminate the Bane — they are thought to have spread the plague — and three Bane trackers who set out to find a mystical figure named Caliphestros, banished from Broken after being accused of sorcery.
If this sounds a tad confusing, believe me, I’m boiling the story line down to its essence. The author introduces more than a dozen central characters, all of whom arrive with their own complicated back stories and agendas.
Carr keeps the action hurtling along with a steady diet of gruesome murders and political betrayals. And he clearly wants modern readers to see something of their own world in the political corruption and greed that ultimately doom Broken.
Unfortunately, his characters hail straight from central casting. Here’s our introduction to Redulic Baster-kin, the lord of the Merchants’ Council of Broken: “Although graced with angular, handsome features, he scowls out harshly from beneath a bristling shock of auburn hair, the set of his jaws revealing little patience with distraction. Only the light, hazel-grey eyes hint at any gentleness, and even that is overwhelmed by condescension that could easily be mistaken for contempt.”
Ladies and gentleman, I give you . . . the villain.
In a brief introduction, Carr claims to have unearthed the manuscript in the archives of the historian Edward Gibbon, and the book includes about 80 pages of meticulous endnotes, supposedly mostly written by Gibbon.
Elsewhere, Carr’s concern for authenticity wavers. I’m still pondering why he would describe a character as having a “six-foot-three-inch body,” terms of measurement virtually unknown in the Dark Ages.
But what makes “The Legend of Broken’’ especially taxing to read is the virtual absence of a single narrator who can draw back from the action and orient the reader. Instead, Carr reduces his characters to mouthpieces. They continually deliver stagy speeches to one another, crammed full of historical background, and blurt out statements such as “but your stand at the Atta Pass was eight years ago, Arnem.”
Carr has crafted a vivid ancient world, with an ornate history, one designed to appeal to fans of historical fantasy, particularly admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. Film producers are likely to be eager to render the action onscreen, even before they encounter Stasi, the magical white panther that squires Caliphestros through the forest.
I was less compelled. In fact, I couldn’t help but concur with Edmund Burke, who — Carr would have us believe — was sent a copy of the manuscript as a gift by his fellow historian Gibbon. Carr is canny enough to include Burke’s response:
“And so, my dear Gibbon, it is neither entirely my revulsion at this story’s more lurid aspects, nor my impatience with your historical prurience, as you may think, but rather my concern for your gifts and legacy as a Great Intellect and a Great Author, an Historian whose work will prove not only popular but seminal, that compels me to return the manuscript you have ‘discovered,’ and urge you to destroy it at once. . . . [A]bove all do not publish it, certainly not in any form that can be connected to your good name.”
I’m not sure I’d put it that harshly. But I get his point.
Steve Almond, author of the story collection “God Bless America,’’ can be reached at email@example.com.