Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review - The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr

Short review: A historical fiction set in a city that history doesn't have any record of existing revolves around a religion that never existed, two plagues that never happened, and a man who never existed who was willing to manipulate the politics of a nation that never existed to compel a woman who never existed to become his wife.

Historical fiction
About fictional events
May be fantasy

Full review: How much actual history does a book need to contain in order to be considered historical fiction? If a book deals with a period and a place about which we have no actual historical information of any kind, does that book still have a claim on the label "historical fiction"? Or is that book more properly classified as fantasy? This is a question that lurks behind The Legend of Broken which describes events that take place in central Germany during the post-Roman period between the fifth and eighth centuries in the fictitious city of Broken as they come into conflict with the equally fictitious forest-dwelling people of Bane. Through the book we are ominously told several times that this story is a tale of how the mighty city of Broken was laid low by its own internal contradictions, clearly an attempt to connect this work with Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but the story never actually pays off, instead sputtering out with an anticlimactic whimper about a jealous and powerful man who wants another man's wife.

Framing the main story is a supposed conversation between actual historical figures Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke discussing Gibbon's supposed discovery of the texts relating to Broken and Gibbon's scholarly treatment of them. In the conversation, Gibbon asks Burke's advice as to whether to publish the material, which Burke counsels against doing, although the reason for Burke's admonishment seems unclear. There isn't anything in the story itself that would seem to have been particularly offensive to eighteenth century sensibilities, and the fact that the document supposedly described a hitherto unknown culture in Europe seems like it would be something that would have given Gibbon even more fame than he already had. Burke's advice seems to be grounded in nothing more than Carr's need to provide a reason why this manuscript would not have been revealed by Gibbon. But this would have been an entirely moot point had the unnecessary framing story been simply left out of the book. But it is there, and because of the framing story, the book is filled with end notes, supposedly from Gibbon expounding upon the historic or cultural significance of various elements of the story, and every now and then there will be some expository material supposedly written by Gibbon inserted in between the plot oriented portions. This conceit feels forced and artificial, and doesn't add much to the book other than give it an air of faux reality that comes off as pointlessly pretentious.

Some years ago I (not entirely purposely) watched several weeks of the supernaturally oriented soap opera Passions. For the record, Passions was, quite possibly, the worst television show ever aired, or at least the worst television show I have ever seen. In any event, the portion I watched consisted of multiple parallel story lines that, we were repeatedly told, were all going to culminate when everyone met that night at a local restaurant named the Lobster Shack. This dragged on interminably, for weeks of episodes, with the story lines being dragged out to the point of tedium, clearly in an effort to pad out and lengthen a thin plot. It was also clear that the writers of the show thought they were being terribly clever by having this collection of competing story lines that were all going to tie together in one big plot collision. Instead of being impressed by the multiple plot threads, all I could think when watching the show was "get to the damn Lobster Shack already and wrap some of these loose ends up". When I was reading The Legend of Broken, I felt like I was back watching Passions. Carr starts the book shifting back and forth between a handful of story lines, first two and adding more as the plot branches out and new threads are added, following different sets of characters as they all work their way towards the completely unsurprising confrontations that tie them all off together. In this way, Carr takes what is a relatively simple plot and tries to make it seem intricate and convoluted.

The plot of the book is, when all of the artifice is stripped away, fairly straightforward. Broken is a small isolationist city-state in central Germany that is dominated by the worship of Kafra, a faith that insists that physical perfection is a sign of divine favor, and physical infirmity or disease is equated with sin. By systemically exiling any individuals who display any kind of birth defect or congenital disease to the nearby Davon Wood, the citizenry of Broken have created a despised diminutive race called the Bane to which the citizens of Broken attribute demonic prowess. The Bane, for their part, return the loathing for the people of Broken. But at the same time that they are repelled by one another, both the Bane and the people of Broken seem to be fascinated by one another as well, leading to the two peoples being locked into a mutually destructive cycle. With the worship of Kafra firmly entrenched in Broken and the city firmly controlled by the commercial interests of the Merchant Lords and the Bane ensconced in their hidden settlements of Moon worshipers in the Davon Wood, the story opens with the Broken army being sent to wage war in the near impenetrable forest against the diminutive yet deadly Bane.

The hero of the story, to the extent it has a hero, is the Broken military commander Sixt Arnem, a man who has improbably risen from the lower class "Fifth District" of the city to command its entire army. Being an egalitarian sort of person, he married a beautiful woman from the same district named Isadora and, despite the low regard in which the district is held, maintains his household with his numerous children there. The de facto ruler of Broken, and the villain of the book is the Merchant Lord Rendulic Baster-kin, who sets the Broken troops into motion in response to what is clearly a trumped up charge that the Bane had attempted to kill the deified religious leader of the city. Rendulic's own marriage to an exotic foreign woman is the result of a ploy to gain political power, and in a fairly blunt force application of poetic justice, has led to Baster-kin having to conceal a collection of terrible secrets. Running in parallel with the stories of the characters from Broken is the story of the trio of Bane foragers Keera, Veloc, and Heldo-Bah, which eventually leads to Broken bogey-man Caliphestros and his companion panther. Carr sets these various characters in motion in their own story lines and more or less lets the reader stand back and watch, building to what we are ominously told on more than one occasion is the climatic event that doomed the city of Broken.

But the problem with the book is that the oft foreshadowed downfall of Broken never really materializes because none of the characters really seem to take the world they live in seriously. We are repeatedly told that Caliphestros is regarded by the people of Broken as a frightening figure, a demonic individual who committed such vile crimes that he had to have the ultimate punishment inflicted upon him and then be abandoned in the Davon Wood. However, as he is leading Broken's army out of the city to wage war against the Bane, Sixt runs into a former acolyte of Caliphestros' named Visimar and, on a whim, decides to take him along as an adviser. For Sixt to do this is not particularly surprising, because it is an established part of his character that he is indifferent at best to the Kafran religion, but this decision is accepted by everyone around him with only mild objection. After building Caliphestros and his followers up as horrific monsters that terrify the Broken public, the story hand waves away Visimar's presence with the Broken army. And this is because everyone in the story who is not clearly identified as a villain - which for the most part means everyone who is not Rendulic - is incredibly reasonable throughout. Deep into the book, after Sixt's army has reached the edge of the Davon Wood and the Bane forces have rallied to oppose his efforts, the story seems to be moving towards what can only be described as a tragic confrontation. After all, Sixt and his forces have clearly been deceived by Rendulic and his cronies, and the Bane are merely defending their homes against Broken aggression. But rather than having a tragic pay off that leads to advancing the plot and developing characters, instead everyone sits down and hashes out the situation in a reasonable manner that results in the Broken soldiers and Bane soldiers joining forces.

We are told that Isadora runs great risks by continuing to participate in Moon worship, in contravention of Broken's laws, and at the same time provides healing services to those in the Fifth District, which would offend Kafra's priests if they found out. But through the course of the book it becomes clear that these assertions are essentially untrue, and even the high ranking members of the Broken political elite know that the Kafran priests are simply mouthing fairy tales. Despite the supposedly pervasive nature of the Kafran religion in shaping Broken society, it seems that none of the important characters in the story actually believe in its teachings, which makes Sixt's supposedly heretical attitude less iconoclastic and more ordinary. At no point does any character who is not marked as "evil' by the story make any decisions that are unreasonable or which are motivated by prejudice or religious dogma. In short, the book is entirely populated by reasonable characters, having reasonable conversations, and coming to reasonable conclusions, no matter what cultural or religious motivations that we are told they are supposed to have. Such considerations are simply set aside and the characters transform into calm, cool rational and enlightened thinkers whenever they meet someone with a differing background and set of beliefs, even if we had been told repeatedly prior to such a meeting that the two worldviews were antithetical to one another.

And this lack of ideological commitment from the various characters is the problem with the book, and why, despite Carr's obvious attention to the details of his imagined society, the story set within it ends up feeling flat and lifeless. The main difficulty appears to be that Carr, being an educated and intelligent man, seems to have a hard time accepting that any other intelligent person could actually accept the teachings of the Kafran religion of Broken or the Moon cult of the Bane. Consequently, all of the careful world development and lovingly detailed multiple plot lines are thrown over the side whenever adhering to them would be unreasonable from the perspective of a twentieth century observer. Even Rendulic, who is using the Kafran religion as the basis for his villainous plan, is using it in a cynical manner that indicates that it actually isn't important to him in any way. Despite a backdrop filled with odd religious practices and manufactured tribal animosity, the various plot lines of the book all tie together to reveal that the whole fracas has been about a somewhat insane man's desire to rekindle the flame with an old lover who had since married another man. This, winds to an anticlimactic conclusion that seems to affect absolutely nothing in Broken society other than causing a shift in political power out of the hands of someone who is something of a lunatic to some other, much more reasonable individuals. All of this action resulting in almost no effect makes the subplot involving a panther that acts in very human ways, including striking up an impromptu friendship with a legless man and seeking revenge for the death of its cubs for several years, seem almost reasonable. Plus, it's implausibility adds a bit of entertainment to the plodding story.

Even the underlying horror involving twin plagues that strike throughout all of the peoples described in the book seems to be almost irrelevant. One would think that a society built upon the idea that perfect health is a sign of divine favor and sickness and infirmity is a public mark of sin would be rattled to its core by a plague. And for a while, the book seems to be building toward this sort of development, like everything else foreshadowed in the text, this element fizzles out anticlimactically as Visimar, Isadora, and Caliphestros identify the source of the plagues and come up with ways to contain them. And instead of the response one would expect - namely resistance and obstruction from the Moon priestesses of the Bane and the priests of Kafra - the powers that be seemingly override such considerations in favor of halting the spread of the plagues in a relatively pragmatic manner. Or at least one assumes so during the relatively abrupt and unclear denouement. The issue of the twin plagues is not so much dealt with, as ignored, as it more or less drops out of the story when the jealous ex-lover plot takes over the entire book.

Quite simply, none of the events in the book seem to pose an existential crisis for the Broken political order or the existence of the Bane, a conclusion driven in part by the fact that none of the characters in the book see the events in that light to even the slightest degree. In the end, once Rendulic has been dealt with, the government of Broken is placed in the hands of improbably reasonable people while superstitious influences have been discredited, or at least muted. To the extent that there is any change that takes place in the book, it seems that Broken has been strengthened rather than weakened, as the insanity at the heart of its political elite has been removed, and the pernicious nature of its ruling religious class has been contained. With The Legend of Broken Carr has produced an imaginative "what if" setting that takes place in a place and time that is currently a blank spot in our knowledge, but he uses it to create a story that is uninteresting and then tell it in the most convoluted and overly lengthy manner possible.

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  1. Thank you for this comprehensive review! I am halfway through 'The Legend of Broken' and remain confused, frustrated and detached. Your analysis has put the tangled plot and fickle characters into perspective. I am going to stop berating my inadequacies as a reader and give myself rare permission to put down forever an unfinished novel. I am most grateful.