George R.R. Martin fans awaiting the next installment of “A Song of Ice and Fire” might ease their craving for mythic heroism, internecine warfare and depraved royals with Caleb Carr’s absorbing new novel. Set circa 745 A.D., during Europe’s Dark Ages, “The Legend of Broken” straddles the line between epic fantasy and alternate history.
In a brief introduction, Carr claims to have discovered an ancient document known as the Broken Manuscript among the papers of Edward Gibbon (author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”). Adolf Hitler was also supposedly aware of the manuscript and attempted to suppress all knowledge of it, as well as of the lost kingdom whose strange history the manuscript records. Now Carr has brought the Legend of Broken to light, complete with copious footnotes and correspondence between Gibbon and Edmund Burke on the manuscript’s authenticity.
All of this post-modern folderol makes for a rather contorted opening to what quickly turns out to be an excellent and old-fashioned entertainment that evolves into a clever discourse on the history and development of modern warfare. Best known for novels like “The Alienist” and “The Angel of Darkness,” Carr is also a noted military historian. “The Legend of Broken” has none of the fin-de-siecle trappings that distinguished his earlier novels, but his gift for integrating historical detail with lurid spectacle rivals those on display in the much-missed BBC/HBO series “Rome.”
The fictional Kingdom of Broken occupies the part of modern Germany that includes the Harz Mountains and remnants of the vast first-growth forest that once covered much of northern Europe. The people of Broken live in a mountaintop city carved from granite. Below them, in the shadows of Davon Wood, live the Bane, four-foot tall humans (don’t call them halfings, dwarves or elves) who were exiled from Broken 200 years earlier by its founder, Oxmontrot. Known as the Mad King, Oxmontrot forsook his roots as an adherent of the Moon Goddess to embrace a hedonistic religion with a beautiful male avatar, Kafra.
Now, centuries after Oxmontrot’s death (under sinister circumstances), the Bane and the people of Broken are drawn into open conflict, while both races are being decimated by mysterious plagues that seem to have been deliberately spread. The Bane think the Broken are behind the deaths, and vice versa. It’s up to a trio of plucky Baneand a wise military leader of the Broken named Sixt Arnem to venture into the surrounding countryside and attempt to save their respective peoples.
Carr’s depiction of 8th-century Europe as a gallimaufry of religions, superstitions, science and cultural tradition is marvelous: His Dark Ages contain incandescent flashes of insight into an era that itself is often resigned to a mere footnote. His notes initially seem intrusive — imagine Tolkien footnoting every cry of “A Elbereth Gilthoniel!” — but his commentary soon becomes a compelling counter-narrative, where magic is displaced by science, and the Bane archers and Broken cavalry become part of a military continuum that stretches from ancient Greece to the present day.
Lest this all sound too all serious, be aware that a legless sorcerer, his one-legged acolyte, talking birds and the legendary white panther of Davon Wood (a holdover from Pleistocene days) all play a major part in the final confrontation between Bane and Broken. In his notes, Carr acknowledges his debts toEdgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and his novel’s language often owes more to the glory days ofpulp than to scholarship: “Sheets of black hair fall to the woman’s waist, and her eyes — which glitter an alluring green in the torchlight, a green the color of the best emeralds the Bane have been known to bring out of Davon Wood — are fixed on the amber orbs of the panther, which already betray some sort of enthrallment.”
But Carr’s tale grows deeper and darker as it proceeds, as the meaning of the word “broken” and its relationship to the various characters gradually become clear. And an extended, gruesome sequence detailing the ravages of ergot poisoning on Broken’s populace had me flipping furiously between Carr’s footnotes and the main story, then going online to research the history of medieval pestilence. At its best, “The Legend of Broken” seamlessly blends epic adventure with serious research and asks questions that men and women grappled with in the Dark Ages and still do today. Questions like, Is there ever such a thing as a just war? And could a legless old man really tame a 600-pound panther?
Hand’s most recent book is “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
THE LEGEND OF BROKEN
By Caleb Carr
Random House. 734 pp. $28