Author Caleb Carr ventures into the realm of fantasy and fable for the first time with The Legend of Broken. This dense, immense work is presented as a true story of a Germanic region whose existence has been obscured by the Dark Ages.

Broken is a society ruled by a religion that treats health and wealth as evidence of worthiness. The deformed, unfortunate and heretical are either banished to the hungry wilds of Davon Woods or, in a milder form of trickle-down-get-what-you-deserve, shunted aside to an impoverished Fifth District. The people who have survived the Woods have formed a society of sorts called the Bane. The Legend of Broken follows the efforts of a select few both within (a military leader of humble origins) and without (a trio of Bane foragers and a banished “sorcerer”) the walls of Broken to identify and thwart a heavily veiled yet deadly plot with elements that would have made Heinrich Himmler proud.

Still best known for his debut 1994 novel, The Alienist, Carr presents his latest work under the guise of a recently discovered historical manuscript. Coating a work of fiction in a veneer of “real” is by no means a unique approach to setting up a fantasy tale. “Discovered papers” have provided segues to tales by H.P. Lovecraft, and the fake memoir (both as conceit and as act of deception) is a genre in its own right. Even William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is presented as an abridgment of “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.” (Spoiler: There is no such author.)

That said, Carr, a historian by training, takes the approach to the extreme, treating the publishing of The Legend of Broken as if he were publishing a heavily annotated scholarly manuscript. (He also presents correspondence throughout between no less historical personages than Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke.) The result buries his often compelling characters and intriguing storyline so deeply within a didactic framework, it’s a miracle they survive.

Readers with a tolerance for (or willingness to skim past) the overly pedantic trappings will be rewarded by a memorable cast of characters and occasionally thrilling plot. For those who don’t—well, perhaps an unannotated version?

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