Caleb Carr had me, he lost me, and he never got me back.
I think many readers would agree, and his new George R.R. Martin-lite fantasy epic “The Legend of Broken” ain’t bringing anyone back.
The novel that had me, “The Alienist,” remains, for me, one of the most haunting, extraordinarily dense serial killer dramas ever written. I was 14 when I laid eyes (in a now defunct bookstore) on the cover image of a mysterious, cloaked figure skulking through the long-ago streets of New York.
The resulting read was one of the more memorable of my early teenage years – along with Howard Stern’s “Private Parts”; don’t judge me – and it’s still a bit shocking.
Its central narrative, the hunt for the killer of teenage boy prostitutes who ply their trade dressed as girls, coupled with its setting in late 19 century Manhattan and its weaving in of real figures (including Teddy Roosevelt), made it one of the finest, most devastating popular novels of the end of the 20th century.
Its author, the long-haired son of famed Beat Generation icon Lucien Carr, was on the map. But his follow-up, a sequel to “Alienist” titled “The Angel of Darkness,” while ever-readable, lacked its predecessor’s shocking pull, and made me long for the first adventure of psychiatrist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler and company.
I lost track of Caleb Carr after “Angel”; his next two novels, the sci-fi jumble “Killing Time” and a Sherlock Holmes mystery titled “The Italian Secretary,” were received with respectful silence. The buzz of Carr’s “Alienist” days was quieted.
It is unlikely that Carr’s new book “The Legend of Broken,” a phone-book-heavy medieval adventure, will bring its author back to prominence. It suffers the same fate as his post-“Alienist” works: It’s not good enough. It’s too long (more than 700 pages, with notes). And it neither shocks nor grabs.
Take “Broken”’s marble-mouthed first chapter:
“The scent given off by the three hurrying forms is odd – less human even than their stature. … The three are of the Bane, a tribe made up of exiles from the city on the mountain, as well as the descendants of those who suffered similar punishment; a tribe whose survival in the Wood is ensured by foraging parties like this one, which are dispatched to seek out rare goods prized in Broken for their curative or pleasuring qualities.”
And with that, I must admit, I was gone.
Oh, I continued reading, but I never cared a lick for the story of Bane tracker Keera (it is nice to see a strong female character front and center), Broken leader Sixt Arnem, the sorcerer Caliphestros, and the rekindled battle between the Bane and the Broken, one brought on by unexplained sudden plagues. (The heart of the conflict all goes back to “Mad King Oxmontrot” who, you see … never mind.)
Carr knows how to write action; a late swordfight in which Arnem’s son Dagobert saves his father’s life, is cinematic in its fury (“Driving his sword in a final moment of screaming rage into the fool’s gaping mouth – a most fitting final thrust – Dagobert pulls his blade free as the man falls to the ground, instantly dead.”)
He is also nothing if not imaginative. Even though it all feels drawn from some other source – Tolkien, Martin, countless other fantasy kingpins – it is not a dull world.
It’s just an overstuffed, uninvolving one, in which the key question – what is causing the plagues, and who is to blame? – is likely to be greeted by a nonchalant shrug.
The introduction of the Yoda-ish Cliphestros is a highpoint (he is without legs, lying “atop the haunches of the lounging creature below”), but it’s not enough to push the reader back onto Carr’s side.
I’ve never been a fan of medieval fiction – the “Game of Thrones” books have been staring at me angrily for years – so there is perhaps an emotional distance with such material that I cannot overcome. Perhaps fans of the genre will embrace “Broken” ’s hobbit-y Banes and their struggle.
And if there was a time for such a creation from Carr, surely, that time is now — hey, “Game of Thrones” isn’t back on HBO until March, after all.
But taking on a book of this size requires a great deal of time, and a feeling that we’re heading somewhere that makes the journey worth it.
In fact, the most interesting aspect of “Broken” is its intro, a nice bit of literary fakery in which Carr claims the manuscript for this very text was discovered among the papers of the very real Edward Gibbon, 18th century author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
I wish Carr had kept the fake discovery hidden in his own files, and perhaps returned once more to old Manhattan.
In the absence of a worthy new work from Caleb Carr, I’ll once again read “The Alienist,” and ponder whether its author has the ability to pull off a work as powerful again. I’d put my money on a “Legend of Broken” sequel happening first, sadly.
The Legend of Broken
By Caleb Carr
734 pages, $28
Christopher Schobert is a staff editor at Buffalo Spree and a frequent contributing Buffalo News critic.