The Legend of Broken
- Caleb Carr
- Random House
- 752 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
- March 1, 2013
A novel that combines elements of speculative history and fantasy to tell an epic tale centered on the fictional kingdom of Broken.
The kingdom of Broken is a fortified city-state flourishing in what is now Germany, sometime between 500 and 800 A.D. Rulers of the city sustain a rigid religious orthodoxy with military force. People who do not reach established standards of height, health and beauty are exiled to the nearby Davon Forest. There, they establish a highly developed tribal society of their own. The exiles are called the Bane by the residents of Broken, who are called the Tall. Caleb Carr’s latest novel, The Legend of Broken, combines elements of speculative history and fantasy to tell the epic tale centered on this invented kingdom.
The action begins with Keera, the most talented tracker of the Bane, and her companions discovering the rotting corpse of a Tall in the forest. Even though the man was killed by arrows, his corpse smells of disease, and soon the trackers discover their own village is devastated by a mysterious plague. In Broken, Arnem, commander of an elite unit of Broken’s army, is summoned to an audience with the God-King, the chief priest and the powerful head of the merchants’ guild and secular ruler of the city, Lord Baster-kin. Arnem is ordered to lead his troops to a far part of the lands controlled by Broken, with the mission to fight the Bane.
The tension builds as the stories are intertwined and the plague appears in the city and lands ruled by Broken. The two sides blame each other for the disease and prepare to fight, although it becomes clear to the reader that ignorance and superstition pose far more danger than any army. The Bane are helped by another exile from Broken, Caliphestros, whom the Tall and the Bane both believe to be a sorcerer, but who scoffs at the title: “I’m a scientist,” he says, “Not a sorcerer.”
Conflict between the belief in sorcery and the belief in science is an important theme woven through this work: Caliphestros helps the Bane to overcome the plague, and tries to show them that his work is science, but most of them still believe it is sorcery. He teaches Keera to repeat, “The only true ‘magic’ is madness, just as the only real ‘sorcery’ is science.” He offers to help the Bane in their battle against the Tall. When his proposal is considered by the rulers of the Bane, their high priestess jeers, “If we are to be delivered from this crisis, it will be faith, and not science that will be our salvation. Science is no more than a blasphemer’s term for sorcery.”
In spite of her misgivings, the high priestess and the other Bane rulers agree to accept Caliphestros’ help, which proves decisive in their struggle. He creates several important tools and weapons, implements a modern reader will understand but which, at the end of the story, most other characters still regard as sorcery. Caliphestros’ accomplishments are not 100 percent scientific, since an important thread in the book is his partnership with a large Davon panther; but most of his so-called sorcery does have a natural and scientific explanation.
Caleb Carr is perhaps best known for his earlier novel, The Alienist, a thriller set in 19th-century New York City. His skill in building suspense and creating surprise is illustrated well in both that book and this one. He took nearly 30 years to write this book and it shows. Carr has crafted a fascinating and detailed world with vivid, engaging main characters and even invented a unique language used by both Tall and Bane. At times, however, he does appear to write sentences more for sonority than sense, as, for example, when Keera is anxiously running toward her home village, worried about her family: he slows the reader down with the observation, “the tribulations of the heart, like those of the body, can make a lowly fool of that seeming master we call Time.” On the other hand, Carr does not stop to explain everything: nobody in this saga set 1,500 years ago comments on the fact that Keera, regarded as a leader for her tracking talents, is female. Even so, the writing drives the reader rapidly forward toward the end.
This is not a light read in any sense of the word. The Legend of Broken is 752 pages long, with more than 70 pages of footnotes, most to explain the language or some detail of the societies Carr has created. The book has been called a combination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and A Game of Thrones. The comparison is useful; like A Game of Thrones, its story turns on perfidy and betrayal at a monstrous level, and like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, it is an engaging and complex fantasy, with the bonus of a richly created mythology and language. It has another similarity to Tolkien: there is a great deal of background information and descriptive language, so it can take a reader a long time to get into the story. However, it can reward persistence, and a reader who stays past the first 100 pages or so is likely to be swept up into an exciting yarn and a satisfying read.
Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist and a retired civil servant. She has completed her first novel, currently titled The Monk Woman’s Daughter, set in 19th-century urban America. She and her husband Rich live in Silver Spring; they have two children.